Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘Santa Claus came early.’ Inside Dick Vitale’s battle against lymphoma and how ESPN’s iconic voice returned to call Gonzaga vs. UCLA

Technically speaking, Dick Vitale has been absent from the broadcast booth for only two weeks, but it may feel like a lifetime for a college basketball audience that’s always associated the start of a new season with Vitale’s iconic voice, shiny bald head and larger-than-life personality.

Recently, it was life itself that got in the way for Vitale, who’s needed a few strokes of luck over the last month to enter his 43rd season as a college basketball broadcaster. Vitale’s return to the court coincides with the most-anticipated matchup of the 2021-22 season to this point. Alongside partner Dave O’Brien, he’ll be on the ESPN call for Tuesday’s Final Four rematch between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA at 7 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“Being at courtside is a whole different scenario and having No. 1 and No. 2 brings it to another level,” Vitale told The Spokesman-Review on the phone Monday morning before getting on a plane to Las Vegas. “I’m really pumped up. That’s me. I’ve been that way all my life, 43 years, I’d hope it doesn’t change. I’m a little worried about getting emotional before the game. People have been so good to me.”

Even for someone with his zest, joy and optimism, Vitale wasn’t emotionally equipped for the news that Oct. 12 brought with it. He’d already overcome a strenuous battle with melanoma in the summer, spending hours under anesthesia as doctors performed blood work and other tests that put the 82-year-old under heavy fatigue. Now doctors had determined another, more serious form of cancer had entered Vitale’s body. The odds didn’t look as promising.

Early signs indicated Vitale had bile duct cancer, meaning major surgery, months of intensive treatment and a five-year relative survival rate of around 30%. Based on scans, doctors determined there was a blockage in Vitale’s body and his symptoms of yellow skin (jaundice), brown urine and severe itching aligned with those usually seen in bile duct cancer patients.

Vitale’s famously-positive disposition met a harsh new reality. Much of his life’s work has been dedicated to funding pediatric cancer research and Vitale’s ongoing efforts have netted more than $44 million. Now his life was compromised by the disease.

Meanwhile, thoughts about returning to a basketball court were overshadowed by whether he’d be alive to see his grandchildren – all five of them promising high school- or college-aged tennis or lacrosse players – walk across the stage for their college graduation. “That’s one of my goals,” he said.

“You go through periods, you get emotionally down, you get mentally a little down. I haven’t said this to many, but when they told me I had cancer on Oct. 12, I’m 82 years old so you can just imagine what I’m thinking when they say that,” Vitale said. “… It just floored me. I’m not 25 or 35, I’m 82.”

His surgery date already penciled in on the calendar, Vitale received a call one evening from gastroenterologist Dr. Stephen Kucera. Vitale’s latest scan led doctors to a new theory: his diagnosis was not bile duct cancer but rather lymphoma, which is 90% curable. An hour after Vitale got off the phone with Kucera, a separate doctor from the Moffitt Cancer Center in his hometown of Tampa, Florida, called to say a team of doctors reviewed the scan, finding similar results.

Then, approximately 72 hours before Vitale was scheduled to go in for bile duct surgery, one final, conclusive call from Kucera came. Vitale recited the doctor’s message: “My friend, Santa Claus just came early for you. Trust me. This is an absolute Christmas present because it’s a night and day difference dealing with what we thought at first (to) what you’re dealing with now.”

Preliminary signs are positive, but Vitale isn’t out of the woods yet. Still, doctors said he could safely return to his favorite sanctuary – a piece of hardwood with painted lines and baskets at each end – as he undergoes sporadic chemotherapy treatments over the next six months.

“I’ve been very blessed to have so much love,” Vitale said. “I wish everybody that’s battling cancer has what I have because it is such a lift for you and my heart feels for all the people when I go for chemo.”

He’s received messages from college basketball giants such as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski. Recently, Kentucky coach John Calipari called to tell Vitale he’d lit a candle and prayed for the broadcaster to “really have a great year” and “beat this cancer.” ESPN colleagues who’ve overcome their own cancer battles have chimed in with advice. Holly Rowe, who recently posted a photo with “DV” Sharpied on her wrist, called to tell Vitale he should get in the habit of walking after chemotherapy treatments even though it’ll be tempting to sleep.

“All that means so much to a person when they’re going through a tough time,” Vitale said. “And like I said, I’m 82 years old and I feel so full of energy and enthusiasm, I don’t feel that I’m ready to hang it up. I really don’t.”

Vitale’s been vulnerable and open about all he’s overcome the last few months, not to mention the battle he’s still entrenched in. He’ll discuss more during a pregame press conference with reporters at T-Mobile Arena, but he’s equally hopeful it doesn’t become an overriding storyline when Tuesday’s game tips off. The action on the floor should be compelling enough and Vitale has described college basketball as his “medicine” – the perfect antidote for the physical and mental pain brought on by cancer.

“I want people to know, the game tomorrow is more important than me,” Vitale said. “… Both teams are very experienced, we’ve got both teams with star players and I’m looking forward to it.”

Two years ago, he was calling a Gonzaga game on ESPN when Drew Timme replaced forward Filip Petrusev for a seven- or eight-minute stretch and put on a dazzling display that evoked one of Vitale’s memorable calls.

“He was unbelievable, his footwork, drop steps, posting, and I go off on TV. I start yelling, ‘Timme, Timme, everybody remember the name. T-I-M-M-E. He is going to be a superstar.’” Vitale recalled. “The one thing (UCLA) did well with him in that first matchup last year in the tournament, he was trying to guard the kid (Jaime) Jaquez but Jaquez was able to beat him off the bounce, got him in a little foul trouble as well. So I think they’re going to try a little of that isolation there, make him have to play defense.”

Regarding five-star freshman Chet Holmgren, Vitale said “He’s a freshman who’s obviously got to get physically stronger and bigger and tougher and he will, but he’s got skills galore. Handles, shoot the ball, great size. Can’t teach that.”

And while Gonzaga’s vaunted frontcourt continues to receive publicity, Vitale gushes about another player, senior floor general Andrew Nembhard, who he calls “so underrated as a point guard.”

Tuesday’s game is one of the first mile markers for Vitale in his road to recovery. Putting lymphoma in the rearview mirror is the ultimate target, but it’s important to set other goals along the way.

“I may be 82, but when I’m my normal self I act about 12 and that’s what I want to get back to being, acting 12 and not like 82,” he said. “Having spirit, enthusiasm, energy and I think I’ll feel that when I’m in that arena.”

As long as it isn’t derailed by unforeseen events, Vitale’s chemotherapy treatment, a process the normally descriptive broadcaster bluntly calls “no fun,” is scheduled to end by next May. If it does, he’d be able to arrive at his annual “Dick Vitale Gala” with a massive weight off his shoulder. He’s optimistic the fundraiser will be able to raise an additional $6 million for pediatric cancer research, putting the overall threshold at more than $50 million.

“I’m hoping and praying that I can say to that crowd I’m cancer free,” Vitale said. “That’s a goal I have and in life you’ve got to have goals.”

Until then, Vitale will dust off his microphone and keep taking his daily medicine.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Follow along with the Zags

Subscribe to our Gonzaga Basketball newsletter to stay up with the latest news.