Of all the sports personalities in the history of sports media, I'm not sure there has ever been one more specifically suited to Twitter than Dick Vitale. You can make a pretty strong argument that he's been firing off all-caps tweets for years without ever realizing it, before anyone even thought to invent the service in the first place. Dick Vitale has been screaming to imaginary people -- and it is important to remember that Twitter involves talking to imaginary friends who just happen to be real -- his entire career, probably his entire life. Now we just have it documented for posterity.
Vitale's Twitter, like all the best and worst accounts, seems directly piped from his brain. (People like me, who are overly cautious, are decidedly less fun on Twitter.) It's full of catchphrases and links to charitable foundations and groaner corporate sponsorships and of course tons of Duke. It is utterly devoid of irony or self-awareness or negativity. Vitale has to be the only person on earth who has tweeted nearly 35,000 times and still believes the Internet is a "positive" place. That's some sort of miracle.
Which is to say: Dick Vitale is still absolutely irresistible, in spite of himself.
This year, Vitale, for the first time, will broadcast a Final Four game, on ESPN International's telecasts. This is less a breakthrough than ESPN finally allowing him to do it; he has been too valuable to the ESPN brand to be allowed on CBS's tourney games like Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas have been. (Bilas is no longer allowed.) But it feels right. The man is the soundtrack of college basketball, for better or worse. As a broadcaster, Vitale's a bit much -- 82 percent shtick, 18 percent analysis -- but it doesn't change the fact that every time I see that he's doing one of my team's games, I get excited. It means something when Vitale does a game. It still does.
Like anyone who became popular through shtick -- and, frankly, like anyone other than Bob Ley who has worked for ESPN for three decades -- Vitale has worn a bit thin throughout the years. He became a cartoon character for a while, interested in promoting the brand more than anything else. The thing is, though: Vitale's brand has always been college basketball, the rise of the game itself, than solely himself, personally. (No one would argue that Chris Berman's goal was promoting the NFL, for example; he's in it for just him.) Vitale's shtick might not always feel real -- it honestly must be exhausting having to keep that up all the time -- but his enthusiasm is never faked. He's a walking smile. I think it is all real. It's why his illness of a few years ago was so cruel; not allowing Vitale to talk is against the natural order of earth.
His vigor has often hid some of college basketball's flaws, of course. Vitale's deep affection and belief that college basketball is nothing but good for the athletes is based more in blind faith than reason, necessarily. His love for college basketball is so pure that it can make you believe the game itself is. It quite obviously isn't. But even he has grown on this score. Like his colleague Bilas (who is basically the calmed down, evolved, logical millennial version of Vitale, the best ambassador the sport could have), he believes players should be paid, something he didn't always believe.
My abiding Vitale memory is not actually from a game at all. It is from the documentary "Hoop Dreams," one of the greatest American films of the last 25 years, in which Vitale is speaking to 100 Nike All-Americans.
That is Vitale, in all his glory. Dressed like a buffoon -- even in the early '90s, people didn't wear that -- he is still staggeringly real, less lecturing the kids than reminding them how lucky they are, the opportunity they have, how much they have to lose. You cannot fake that. Vitale believes. In a world of sports where so many people are cynical, or calculating, or merely compulsively opportunistic, Vitale, bless his crazy heart, believes the world is a good place with good people, and sports can make it even better. If you want to what keeps a guy going like that at 73, what keeps him tweeting 35,000 times and posing for pictures with every fan who comes by and screaming at the top of his lungs every night … that's it. He thinks he's helping people. You know what? I bet he's right.
Last weekend, I was home in Mattoon, Ill., visiting my parents. I had to grab some old papers and photos from their attic, and as I was flipping through old boxes, I came across what is very likely the oldest article of clothing I own.
It was a child's size, medium, white T-shirt from 1989. It's amazing that it's still holding together, because the quality of material is one step above tissue paper. I specifically remember my mother buying it for me, at the IGA, because 13-year-old me wouldn't stop begging her about it.
It has a picture of the Illinois Chief logo in the top left hand corner, but the primary figure on the shirt is, yes, a cartoon drawing of Dickie V, as if there is any other kind, holding his finger in the air. There is a block orange "I" on his chest. He's yelling. "FLYIN' ILLINI, NO. 1 BABY!" That Illinois team, with Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle, had reached No. 1 for the first time in decades, and Central Illinois was losing its freaking mind about it. There was only one way, one person, to personify that euphoria, that enthusiasm. It was of course Dickie V. Seeing the shirt made me smile. Every time I think of that team, I hear Vitale's voice in my head. I'm OK with that.
The world is confusing and dark and full of scary things that will bite you. There is so little in the world you can count on. But you can always count on Dickie V. He is always positive, never dour, never flagging. He is a lunatic. He also still, weirdly, gives me hope. Here's to 73 more Final Fours, Dickie V.
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Seriously, though: Watch "Hoop Dreams." Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.