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Book excerpt from Vitale's "Living a Dream"


Following is an excerpt from chapter one of Dick Vitale's new book, "Living a Dream: Reflections on 25 Years Sitting in the Best Seat in the House" (with Dick Weiss, foreword by Mike Krzyzewski).

To order, call toll-free 877-424-BOOK (2665) or visit www.SportsPublishingLLC.com
(format: hardcover, 300-plus pages, 16-page color photo insert -- price: $24.95).

Look at me. I'm flying, man.

There I was, flying over the crowd in an Elvis costume on the ESPY Awards show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas a few years ago.

It wasn't my idea. ESPN was looking for a grand entrance to start the show. And they wanted me involved. I should have known better.

Steve Anderson, one of our senior executives, looked at me and said, "This is going to be great, but I hope you're up for it."

I had no idea. I knew I was really going to kick the ceremony off, but I figured it would be at ground level.

"No," he said, "You're going to go up to the top of the building." They wanted me to be a flying Elvis, like one of those guys who sky-dived out of a plane in that Nicholas Cage movie, Honeymoon in Vegas. Man, I don't know how many feet up I was, and they had me strapped into this contraption so they could fly me in on cables.

And then, on top of it, they put me in that suit. It was warm. I mean, it was hot, man. But I'll do anything for ESPN. I love ESPN, baby.

So there I am. I'm flying in. I toss my Elvis wig out to the crowd, where it's caught by Cybill Shepherd.

And I miss the landing.

All throughout rehearsal, the landing had gone as smooth as could be. But this was the real deal now -- showtime. I'm gliding down, getting ready to land -- all of a sudden, they're pulling me back up again. I'm thinking to myself, "What the hell is this?" Finally, after jerking me back, they bring me onto the stage in a second shot.

Michael Jordan, who was right in front of the stage, just broke up. When I finally got to the stage to start the show, he was nearly in tears from laughing so hard.

There I was, supposedly a grown man, and I'm acting as if I'm about 10.

So what's new?

Welcome to my world. I'm celebrating my Silver Anniversary -- 25 years at ESPN -- and I'm still as crazy as ever. But I'm no longer just that bald-headed, one-eyed wacko who'd gotten the ziggy from the Detroit Pistons.

I'm playing on a bigger stage these days. And enjoying every minute of it, baby.

When I started at ESPN, back in September, 1979, the network operated out of a couple of trailers in Bristol, Connecticut. I was one of their first hires, after Bob Ley and Chris Berman. Using 625 TV cable systems and a satellite for transmission, ESPN initially reached about 20 percent of the nation's viewers.

Today, ESPN has its own campus, man. It has 28 satellite dishes and currently reaches 86.6 million homes through 26,000 cable providers. It broadcasts in 21 languages worldwide. It has grown from one building to seven; from three satellite dishes to 28; from 78 employees located in Bristol to more than 2,000 worldwide.

And how did I get involved?

Lexington, Kentucky, 1977: The University of Detroit was playing the University of Michigan in the NCAA Sweet 16, the last game I ever coached on the collegiate level.

The Wolverines, coached by Johnny Orr, were No. 1 in the country. They were a group of guys who had lined up the year before against unbeaten Indiana -- my favorite team of all time -- in the national championship game. Michigan had great players -- guys like Phil Hubbard, a great Windex man, and a dynamite guard in Rickey Green, who was as quick as I've ever seen with the ball.

We were good, too. Real good, man. We'd won 21 straight and beaten one of my favorite guys, Al McGuire, who eventually cut down the nets at the championship game with Marquette that year.

My players would salivate at the thought of playing a game against Michigan. They would've died for the chance, but Michigan wouldn't play us. We just couldn't get them on the schedule.

Then, when the NCAA pairings came out, I said, "Oh, oh, all we've got to do is beat Middle Tennessee and we'll play Michigan in the Sweet 16. They can't dodge us any longer."

We lost in the last minute, 86-81. Until my dying day, I will believe that we cost Michigan the national championship because we played them in such an emotional, all-out Maalox Masher that went down to the final minute. We took so much out of them that they didn't have anything left for UNC-Charlotte and Cornbread Maxwell 36 hours later in the regional finals. They lost in a major upset.

Our game was televised by NBC. Curt Gowdy did play-by-play. John Wooden did the color. And I was absolutely in awe of both of them. In those days, the University of Detroit's games didn't get televised. That was our only game of any significance on national TV.

Producing that game was Scotty Connal. I've since found out from Scotty that, while he was there in Lexington for our game, he'd heard me speak at a function and noted to himself, "If I ever become the head of a network and this guy's not tied up, I want to give him a buzz." Well, later on, when he read in transaction reports in the newspapers that the Pistons had given me the ziggy, he did just that.

Not surprisingly, however, when the Pistons decided to fire me, my wife, Lorraine, was the first one to know.

The team had gotten off to a 4-8 start that year, and one night I had been talking to Bill Davidson, the owner, trying to get some things off my chest, some things that had been bothering me since I was hired.

When I hung up, my wife said to me, "Hon, you're getting fired. I heard you talking to Mr. Davidson about decisions that were being made. You just can't do that. You can't talk to an owner like that."

Sure enough, the next morning, while I was getting ready to go in and coach against Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers, my administrative assistant, Madelon Hazy, called. She said, "Before you come to practice, Bill Davidson is going to come to your house."

"I'm going to go around the block until the limousine leaves," Lorraine said to me, "but I'm telling you now, prepare yourself. You're getting fired."

I replied, "No way. Everybody knows we've got a team full of young kids. We're rebuilding. But we're creating some excitement and we're getting good fan interest."

Come on, guys, we should all listen to our wives.

Davidson came into the house, and in a low-key way, he said, "Dick, I just made a coaching change."

"Excuse me?" I wondered aloud, "a coaching change?"

"You've been fired."

I couldn't get over it. I'd had such a skyrocketing career, going from teaching sixth grade all the way to coaching the Pistons. And then it was all pulled away from me.

It was tough, man.

Wow, it was embarrassing. The Pistons had started a campaign called the "ReVITALEized" Pistons. They'd made bumper stickers and banners to distribute all over the city to promote the hope that my enthusiasm could turn the team around. I felt bad for letting down so many people, including Madelon Hazy, assistant coaches Mike Brunker, Richie Adubato, Al Menendez, my director of scouting, and many others who had joined me when I was hired. It hurt to know that I'd let them all down.

People always say that I'm the head of the coaches' fraternity, always singing their praises. Well, let me tell you why. If you're fired in the NBA or fired from a major college job, it is just incredibly difficult to get back to that same level. If you were to keep track of the number of guys who got fired, then made it back to the top, the number is very small.

And I'm not one of them.

I started calling people, sending resumés, pleading for people to give me an opportunity. Marketing, public relations, administration -- I couldn't get anywhere. Nobody would return my phone calls. I found out, the hard way, that the only people who would call me back were family.

Then, two weeks after I was fired, the phone rang. I heard this voice on the other end of the line say, "My name is Scotty Connal. I'm the head of production for ESPN, and I want you to do our first major college basketball game for this new network."

I'd never heard of it. It sounded like a disease. I mean, ESPN -- what is that anyway?

At first, I turned him down. I said, "I can't do a game. I don't know anything about television." (Of course, there are people today who would say that I still don't know anything about television, because I violate every rule of broadcasting -- but more on that later.)

But once again, I have to give my wife credit. She said to me, "Rich, all you're doing is sitting around the house." She was right. I was starting to watch soap operas. You know, Luke and Laura, General Hospital. I mean, I was embarrassed to go out. I was depressed. I was humiliated. When you're a coach, everybody knows your story. Everybody knows if you're a success or a failure. It's a very difficult life at times.

So when Scotty called me back a couple of days later, I said, "OK, I'll do a game."

It was DePaul and Wisconsin at Chicago. Bill Cofield was the coach of Wisconsin, and they had a great guard, Wes Mathews, out of Connecticut. DePaul was flat-out golden. Those were the Mark Aguirre days, and Hall of Famer Ray Meyer was the coach. He was warm to me, and I felt like a million dollars.

I felt important, felt I'd gotten my self-esteem back.

I went to Chicago the day of the game and checked into the hotel. After I'd gotten some lunch, I figured I'd just mosey around for a while and enjoy the nice day. I had no idea about production meetings.

So I finally strolled into the DePaul Arena about an hour before tipoff. I thought I'd gotten there in plenty of time, but people were frantically running around and everyone kept asking me, "Hey, where have you been? We've been looking for you. We've got a game."

I said, "But I'm early. We've got about an hour and 15 minutes."

They were, like, "Uh-uh, man. We've got to start."

It was a whole new world to me. Guys talking in your ear, "We're going to go to commercial." You're trying to determine when to come in, when to come out.

I worked with a guy named Joe Boyle. He was a hockey guy. I imagine he must have gone crazy after his very first game with Dick Vitale -- I haven't seen him since. I hope his career didn't come to an end.

Scotty Connal was also very much into hockey. He was a hockey fanatic. He'd come over from NBC, where he had headed up their college basketball coverage. He was the one who had hired Billy Packer and Al McGuire. He put that team together with Dick Enberg -- the best threesome ever.

And he's also responsible for me.

Well, after that first game, the phone rang. It was Scotty, who said very bluntly, "Dick, you've got three things we can't teach. You have enthusiasm, candidness and knowledge of the game. What you don't have is any clue on how to get in and get out and anything about the world of television. But that can be taken care of."

Scotty called me in several times after that. He told me, "Before you think about getting back into coaching, I want you to know something. You have something special in TV. You connect with the people, whether they agree with you or not."

I didn't know what he meant. I was just thinking that I wanted to get back into coaching.

But I soon began to realize that everywhere I went, people were responding to me.

And not always positively, either. They would say things like, "Dick, I heard what you said last night -- I don't agree with you, man."

That's when it dawned on me that I'd hit a nerve.

The first time that happened to me was when Houston played North Carolina State in the NCAA finals in 1983. Now, Houston had a freshman point guard, Alvin Franklin, and North Carolina State had two seniors -- Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg -- in the backcourt.

I came out and said, "You're not going to win the national title with a freshman guard."

And the next day, Reid Gettys, one of the Houston guards, was quoted all over saying, "Well, you know, opinions are like butts. Everyone has one."

I thought, "Wow, I must be making an impact because that was the first Final Four I went to for ESPN and all these Houston fans were coming up, saying, 'We're going to show you, Dickie V.'"

I told myself, "My God, I must be connecting."

That's when it started to kick in that maybe I'd found a career. It was four years after I'd started. And maybe I didn't want to get back into coaching.

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