Letting the passion flow: Vitale gives crowd at Mercer an energetic show

He’s 70. And he was just playing basketball with his grandchildren in the lobby of a hotel.

Not acting his age? Dick Vitale is more than willing to plead guilty.

“I act about 12. I hope that never changes.”

It’s highly doubtful that Vitale will ever change, and the nearly 600 people on hand at Mercer’s University Center who listened to the ESPN college basketball announcer Monday night saw as much.

Vitale the broadcaster is a little different than Vitale the speaker, but passion and volume are two shared traits. When Vitale’s passion switches from basketball to life, his voice goes up an octave or two.

He covered everything a man who went from teaching the sixth grade to the NBA to headline broadcaster could cover, all relating to work ethic, honesty, passion, drive and humanity, and often with a touch of humor.

He recalled how he was depressed after getting fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons when he got a call from a guy helping to start up this new cable sports network.

“ESPN?,” Vitale said of the call from network co-founder Scott Connal. “I thought it was a disease.”

He said people wondered if he was telling the truth about his new job because nobody ever saw him on TV.

“Nobody,” he said, “had cable.”

Vitale’s 4:30 p.m. news gathering didn’t start until 4:50, and he was scheduled to spend half an hour at a VIP reception from 5-5:30 p.m.

Vitale is a planner’s nightmare. He talked to the media for more than 30 minutes — his voice more than once reaching full Vitale volume and blasting through the doors of the Bear Cafe — telling Mercer’s Rick Cameron after 24 minutes to give him a little more time for questions.

In that session, he ran the gamut from serious to passionate to funny to sentimental to disgusted to grateful. Vitale remembered being surprised to be told he was doing a high school game with Bill Walton. It was his introduction to a player he said could never, ever live up to the hype.

“The adjectives I was getting before the game were scary,” Vitale said. “Four or five minutes into the game … I turned to Walton, I said, ‘Bill, I came here and I wondered if this kid was half as good as they said. This is a rarity, man. This kid is better than advertised.”

Afterward, LeBron James ran to meet Vitale as he got in the car and hugged him.

Vitale is a renown humanitarian who gives of his time, money and help. Last month, he helped pay for the funeral of a high school cheerleader shot and killed after a football game near his home of Sarasota.

He talked of a speech at a lumber convention in Boston where attendees were mostly bemoaning the economy. At the same time, he was in touch with the father of a teenager who lives near him. The youngster was in the late stages of cancer, and his prognosis — despite the kid’s optimism and stubbornness — was not good, and he was being put in a hospice.

Within a week or so, the youngster — whose younger brother has the same gene — died.

“I thought about that, and I told the people when I spoke,” Vitale said. “Economy, economy, economy. The economy comes and goes. If you’ve got great work ethic and you got a sense of pride about yourself, you go out and you find a way to survive. It’s tough, there’s no question. Its tough.

“The one great thing (is) if you got your health.”

Vitale was in full voice in front of the half-dozen local media members and was ready to keep going, but he had a schedule.

“Give a speech, 40 minutes, in the car, I’m gone,” Vitale said at the end, kidding about Mercer getting its money’s worth. “This is about my seventh speech (Monday).”

Then he got to the VIP reception about the time he was supposed to be leaving it.

The main event was then apparently his ninth talk. He earlier in the day had indicated a little fatigue, but it didn’t show during the finale on the University Center floor.

And he cruised past that 40-minute mark, going another 25 minutes.

The topics were many: his late parents’ influence, induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, his “hall of fame wife” of 38 years, getting fired, getting hired, recruiting, making less money on a college staff than he did as a high school teacher and coach, and his ESPN career.

He chided Mercer president Bill Underwood and boosters Charlie Cantrell and Morris Butler, using them as characters in stories about players with no game, and noted the men’s basketball tandem of James Florence and Daniel Emerson.

“Forty-eight points against Auburn and Alabama? That’s awesome, baby,” Vitale said to Florence “And you got Mr. Emerson back there, a rebounding machine.”

He noted the rugged schedules of both teams: Oklahoma and Texas Tech among those facing the women, Florida State and Vanderbilt for the men.

“Wow,” he said. “And then the conference tournament, right on this floor. They need you … to provide a great homecourt advantage. They need you out here, your full support.”

More than anything, Vitale’s target was the younger members of the audience, which he advised to simply do right, and to be appreciative toward those who help them.

“Pick up the phone,” he said. “Before it’s too late. Say ‘I love you.’ ”

He looked toward the large group of student-athletes sitting in one section of the stands to his right and noted the advantages of being a scholarship athlete.

“You people playing a sport here at the university a great chance and opportunity,” he said, also acknowledging the scores of business leaders in the audience. “Look at these people sitting here. You have a chance to impress them.

“I’m gonna break your heart. Most of you aren’t going to play professionally. But you know what? You’re playing in college. There are a lot of kids that wish they could play on the level you’re playing.”

But his biggest life lesson came from his mother.

“She said, ‘Richie, listen to me,’ ” Vitale said. “ ‘Don’t ever, ever let the word ‘can’t’ be a part of your life; don’t let the word ‘can’t’ be a part of your vocabulary. Have your dreams, have your desires, have your goals. Chase them.’ ”

He listened to his mother well.