CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Dick Vitale's first "Welcome Back"
came well before the start of the Duke-North Carolina game.
College basketball's signature analyst-ambassador arrived at the
Smith Center on Wednesday about five hours before he was to return
to the air after two months away while he underwent and recovered
from throat surgery.
And Vitale couldn't believe the reception he received.
As he turned the corner toward the media entrance, Vitale was
suddenly in the middle of the North Carolina students already in
line to get the prime seats for the game against their archrival.
"Dickie V. Dickie V."
The students, who have been known for changing his nickname to
"Dukie V." on occasion because of some perceptions that he favors
the "other" school in the rivalry, were genuinely excited to see
the man who coined so many phrases that have become part of the
lexicon of college basketball.
"Get a T-O, baby."
"This game's an M&Mer."
"You're a P-T-Per."
"Shoot the rock."
The more the students cheered and chanted, the closer Vitale got
to crying and eventually the tears streamed down his face. And
tipoff for the ESPN telecast between No. 2 Duke and No. 3 North
Carolina was still hours away.
"This is unbelievable. It's been like this since Dec. 5 when I
found out about the lesions in my throat," said Vitale, a man who
admits he's emotional most of the time anyway. "The phone calls,
the notes and letters, the gift baskets. How lucky can a man be? On
Dec. 5 I never thought I'd be here again."
It's hard to imagine college basketball without Vitale. His
coaching career never brought him this kind of attention. His
broadcasting career started in 1979 and he's been with ESPN ever
Hardly a broadcast journalism example for diction and decorum,
Vitale has left his feelings out there for almost three decades and
the last two months let him know his unique style was appreciated
At 5:20, Vitale had to tape an interview that would be played
during SportsCenter. When the red light went on he was answering
with enthusiasm and his voice was echoing around an empty Smith
The cameramen and technicians were sitting in the first few rows
of the lower level and as Vitale's voice started booming, the
smiles and nods started. Dickie V. was back.
When the interview ended, one fan up on the course level
screamed "Dickie V." and started bowing from the waist with his
One of the hardest parts of his first day back was that Vitale
couldn't accommodate local TV radio stations for brief pregame
interviews, a staple of his pre-surgery days.
"I feel so bad I can't talk to them all but it's doctor's
order," he said.
Every turndown, instead of being greeted with a head shake or a
grumble, was met with a handshake and a welcome.
"I feel like I'm 12 years old again. When you're laying in a
hospital bed you feel 68," he said using his age. "I want to be
Vitale bumped into Tim Brando, who was doing the play-by-play
for Raycom, which was also broadcasting the game. After a hug and
some small talk, Brando told Vitale about a concoction he used to
help his voice during games after nodules were found on his vocal
chords five years ago.
"You take ginger root and slice it like a potato, mix it with
warm water and ... ," was all Brando, who did his first game for
ESPN with Vitale next to him in January 1985, got out.
"Please tell that to Lorraine," Vitale said referring to his
wife. "I can't remember all that."
When he sat eating his pregame meal and drinking plenty of water
(another doctor's order that left him worrying about where the
closest men's room was from the midcourt broadcast position),
Vitale admitted the last time he was this anxious before a game was
when he was coaching at the University of Detroit.
"We had won 20 straight and were playing Marquette in Milwaukee
and needed to win the game to make sure we got an invitation to the
NCAA tournament that at that time was just 32 teams," he said.
"This is my Super Bowl. This is a very special moment in my career
and my life."
And it was smooth at the start.
Following one more "welcome back" from play-by-play partner
Mike Patrick, Vitale -- in a strong voice that showed he has been
doing his exercises such as singing children songs -- again
expressed his joy at being able to do what he loves. Then, it was
time to analyze the game.
After Duke beat North Carolina, 89-78, Vitale walked across the
court with a huge smile on his face and summed the day up as only
"It was awesome, baby."