The Dick Vitale Gala is always a special event, but this year's edition — held May 6 at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota — held an even greater importance to its namesake.
The 17th annual gala, which benefits The V Foundation for Cancer Research, was the first since Vitale, 82, was diagnosed with melanoma in August 2021.
In October 2021, Vitale announced he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Thankfully, Vitale rang the bell at Sarasota Memorial Hospital April 14, signaling that he was finished with chemotherapy treatment and is cancer free. Throughout the process, Vitale shared photos and videos of himself on social media.
He showed himself in the hospital post-chemotherapy. He showed himself going for blood work and various scans. In other words, he showed himself fighting, something he has vowed to never stop doing.
The sharing of those intimate moments is something that meant a lot to Vitale's ESPN colleague Rod Gilmore, a college football analyst. In 2016, Gilmore was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in specific white blood cells called plasma cells. There is no known cure for Gilmore's cancer. At the gala, Gilmore received the John Saunders Courage Award for continuing to persevere in the face of the disease. Gilmore said Vitale's sharing of the treatment process took bravery and gave the public a glimpse into what the disease does to people, a knowledge that most people do not have firsthand. Gilmore said he is hopeful Vitale's documentation will lead to more donations.
"We keep talking about fighting cancer — and I do believe that we are fighting it — but I think what is lost is we have cancer on the run," Gilmore said. "In my six years as a cancer patient, the difference I have seen in the treatments is amazing. It's only happening because of the support of places like the V Foundation and what Dick Vitale is doing. It tells me that we are going to solve this problem. We're on the right track. As someone who is fighting a cancer that does not have a known cure, I am incredibly optimistic and hopeful because of all the work being done."
Everyone who spoke at the gala, including honorees Scott Drew, the Baylor men's basketball coach, and Keyshawn Johnson, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, pointed out Vitale's resistance to rest during his treatments. Every time they spoke to him, he would want to talk about fundraising efforts.
"He was texting me about this during one of his (chemotherapy) sessions, and I told him, 'Stop texting me! Just chill,'" Johnson said.
Texting became one of Vitale's primary methods of communication. In the middle of his cancer treatments, Vitale had surgery on his vocal cords in February to remedy dysplasia and ulcerated lesions. He went on complete vocal rest for four weeks, using a notepad or whiteboard to communicate in person. While Vitale's vocal cords are healing well, his treatment of them is not quite finished. Vitale said he will have a final surgery on them in June, which should get him back to 100%. He hopes to be calling college basketball games again full-time in the fall.
Vitale's voice was raspy but no less full of enthusiasm for his family, his friends and his cause. He spoke only at the gala's press conference and dinner, skipping the cocktail party and one-on-one interviews to save his voice. At the dinner, he spoke of his treatment process and sounded exasperated by it.
"I'm tired of those needles, man," Vitale said. "All the scans, oh my God. And there's always the fear, waiting for that phone call after blood work. What's the call going to be? Please don't tell me that cancer is back. Now I know what these families go through. It is tough."
Vitale then shed light on his decision to share the inner workings of his cancer fight. It came down to one reason, he said: selfishness.
"I wanted to raise more dollars," Vitale said.
Even Vitale's "selfish" reason is selfless in the end.
I have been fortunate to attend the gala five times. Each time I get goosebumps, even though the information presented does not change much from year to year. Such is the slow flow of cancer research. It takes time and a ton of money to make a difference. As Gilmore said, though, progress is being made. I am hopeful that one day there will be no need for galas like this one, but until that day comes, I am happy that pediatric cancer patients have a role model like Vitale in their corner.
Seeing him talk about his experiences was eye-opening, but so were his emotions. Vitale talked to the gala crowd about his treatments and never shed a tear. When talking about his All-Courageous Team — a group of kids fighting cancer with the same spirit as Vitale — he couldn't help himself, even though, as he told the crowd, he promised his wife, Lorraine, that he wouldn't cry.
If you have never met Vitale, you should know it is not an act. Vitale cares about this cause more than anything else.
Apparently the gala's attendees were as touched as I was. Every year Vitale tries to top his own fundraising record. This year, the goal was $7 million, which would put the event's 17-year total north of $50 million.
Vitale blew his goal away.
By the end of the evening, it was announced that the gala had raised $11.1 million, putting the 17-year total close to $55 million.
I don't know how Vitale will top that next year. Then again, I never do, and he always does. No matter what life throws at Vitale, he keeps going. At the gala, in addition to fundraising, Vitale set out a new challenge for himself. Vitale said he wants to become the first broadcaster to call a college basketball game at age 100. I'm not putting it past him.
"That's only 17 more years," Vitale said with a laugh. "I may be in the fourth quarter (of life), but I'm going to overtime, baby."