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East County Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2019 3 months ago

Eighty a perfect age for respect for Lakewood Ranch's Dick Vitale

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

There he sat, college basketball coaching legend John Wooden, all alone.

At the time, Wooden was appearing at a press conference for his preseason invitational basketball tournament in Los Angeles. The UCLA coach, who won a record 10 NCAA national basketball championships, was in his 90s at the time — he died in 2010 at 99 — and I guess the 30-something reporters in the room felt he was no longer relevant.

I spent almost 30 minutes talking to Wooden about basketball strategy. I kept looking behind me to see if other reporters were waiting in line. They weren't. Wooden was sharp, and more than that, he was amazing.

I often have lamented about our society's penchant for tossing away our seniors.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

But we do have hope. We have Lakewood Ranch's Dick Vitale, who turned 80 on June 9.

On June 19, ESPN extended Vitale's college basketball broadcasting contract through the 2021-2022 season. That means no one is tossing away Vitale, at least until he is 83, and probably not then, either.

Vitale said the past three ESPN presidents, including current leader Jimmy Pitaro, have assured him he has a lifetime contract, as long as he wants to work.

On Monday, I thought I would give Vitale a call and ask him about keeping his relevance as a very experienced person.

He answered his cell phone, in Aruba.

"I am watching my grandkids play tennis," he said in an excited tone.

He then told a story of landing in Aruba a few days ago, and having a string of young people in the airport ask him for an autograph.

"My wife (Lorraine) can't believe it," he said. "But not connecting with young people has never entered my mind. I walk into an arena, and the kids are chanting my name."

Vitale isn't the only sports broadcaster who has lived a little. Vin Scully was a month short of his 89th birthday when he retired from calling Dodger games in 2016. Marv Albert and Verne Lundquist are working at 78. Brent Musburger calls the NFL at 80. Lee Corso is a ESPN GameDay (college football) personality at 83. Hubie Brown analyzes basketball at 85.

If you want to know the longest working sportscaster, it was Bob Wolff, who announced in nine decades. He died in 2017 at the age of 96.

Vitale, who announced ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 and has been its face of college basketball for 40 years, isn't going to make nine decades. He had a previous career as a college basketball and NBA coach.

But what I love about Vitale is that he isn't just a voice. Those young college basketball students who adore him, they just don't want to watch him on TV, they want to get up close to him. They want to chat with him. They respect him.

Imagine that?

"I've never had a problem relating to the rich, the poor, the old or the young," Vitale said. "I've already treated people in a positive way and they respect that."

Yeah, but Wooden was as nice as they come.

My explanation of Vitale going strong at 80 is his incredible energy. Nobody notices the 80-year-old man.

"I've never had a concern about relating to people," he said. "I feel 20, I act 12, and then reality hits when I look into the mirror."

The reality hasn't stopped him from bouncing around. Of course, aside from his broadcasting duties, he raised $4.3 million in the past year to battle pediatric cancer. He writes books and appears in movies.

He doesn't drink or smoke and he plays tennis as much as possible. He works out seven days a week.

"I want to keep being healthy," he said. "I've been blessed. But it's also about being around a great family. Stability has been a key to me. I have a wife of 48 years. I've spent 40 years with ESPN. The fact is that I've been lined up with good people."

His advice to seniors in our community is to "wake up with a purpose." 

"You need to enjoy every moment. You need to have goals to achieve. All my dad (who worked as a clothing press operator and a second job as a security guard) did after he retired was sit in a chair, this big lounge chair, and watch ESPN, all day long. You need to keep your legs active. You've got to keep those legs going."

Vitale keeps his legs going because he has so much to do. Speaking a couple of weeks ago at an event in Iowa, he met a man who was complaining he had a long plane flight the next day for work.

"That's not a problem, I told him. A problem is a mom of a 1-year-old being told he or she has neuroblastoma. That's a problem.

"You know, 45 to 50 moms tonight will hear their child has cancer. That happens every night."

So Vitale pushes forward, relevant to not only those of us who became fans 40 years ago, but all those very young college basketball fans. 

His treat to himself these days is taking private planes to basketball assignments and he works harder than ever to learn all the names and statistics of the players and games he covers.

"I've got to keep alert, keep going," he said. "When I or (Corso) make a mistake, you see it on social media They say were senile. A young guy makes a mistake and it's just a slip up.

"So I have to work harder."

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