LAKEWOOD RANCH — Dick Vitale waved two fingers like a conductor while his grandsons and Santa Claus sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in the family’s spacious living room.
At the same time, 12 children from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, each hand-selected, opened gifts in front of a giant Christmas tree full of gold and silver ornaments.
One boy, 7-year-old Marcus Allen, sporting a yellow-and-gray collared shirt and a smile, didn’t seem to grasp the significance of the rare Johnny Kilroy Air Jordan shoes he unwrapped.
His sister, Antonio, 11, did it for him: “Oh, my gosh,” she said.
In an annual tradition Dec. 14, Vitale, the Hall of Fame ESPN basketball analyst, welcomed Boys & Girls Club members from Sarasota, Venice, North Port and Newtown into his Lakewood Ranch home for a Christmas celebration.
Vitale, who, along with his wife, Lorraine, has donated $75,000 in scholarship money to children in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, gave each child a $150 gift card to Publix, along with $200 worth of gifts.
“This is my favorite time of the year,” Vitale said. “I get a bigger thrill than the kids. I want these kids to know if they chase dreams and have goals, lots of good can happen. I wish one of these kids can host a party like this some day.”
The children, most of whom come to their local Boys & Girls Club after school to play sports, make friends and learn, sent Vitale a wish list a month before the event.
Vitale and his wife attached a yellow sticky note addressed to a child on each gift, which included treasures such as a Kindle Fire, American Girl dolls, clothes and bikes.
The Allen siblings, who are cared for by a single mother and have been attending the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota for most of their lives, seemed especially happy to be there.
Antonio put on her new purple Converse shoes.
She likes to read and draw and hopes to become a lawyer.
“I feel excited and honored to be here,” Antonio said. “It’s a fun and good experience when you can go into somebody’s house and get presents. (The Vitales) didn’t have to do this.”
As Vitale handed Marcus a bright orange bike with the words ‘rock it’ imprinted on it, the sportscaster used one of his favorite words: “This is yours, Marcus,” Vitale said. “It’s yours, baby.”
Throughout the night, Vitale spoke about lessons he learned as a child.
Growing up, Vitale said his parents never had a car, and the family shared one bathroom in their Passaic, N.J., home.
“I chased dreams as a kid because I learned two things,” Vitale said. “Never believe you can’t, and be good to people because people will be good to you.”
Before opening presents, the children sat at a table in Vitale’s kitchen and ate sandwiches.
There, Vitale spoke about the value of reading, referencing Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson as iconic figures who valued learning.
Suddenly, 10-year-old Andrew Katz interrupted, “I saw you (Vitale) on YouTube.”
The remark set off free-flowing conversation, as the boys and girls grew more comfortable.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Vitale asked the children. “It’s because the Boys & Girls Club picked you and someone there cares for and loves you.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].