As a boy in New Jersey, Richie Vitale passed many hours by tossing a rolled-up pair of socks into an open dresser drawer while calling play-by-play: "Here comes Cousy-down on a fast break for the Celtics--over to Sam Jones--jumpah--goood!" Vitale never made it as a pro basketball player--in part because of a childhood accident that blinded his left eye--but his manic color commentary for ESPN's and ABC's college basketball games has made him one of America's mast imitated broadcasters.
On most college campuses he is welcomed more feverishly than spring break. Under-grads in crowded gyms hoist him row-to-row from courtside to the nosebleed seats, and they rub his bald head for luck. Many TV viewers revel in his frequent outbursts of exclamations--"Yowoo, a slam jam bam, dipsy-doo dunkeroo!"--while others lunge for the mute button. Critics routinely rip him.
No slave to the English language, Vitale has invented his own vocabulary: A PTPer is a prime-time player, while a Dow Joneser is one whose value to his team may soar or swoon from day to day. An M&Mer is a mismatch between two teams, and an NBN jump shot smacks nothing but nylon as it slips through the rim.
Vitale's résumé includes head coaching positions at every level. While teaching sixth grade in East Rutherford, New Jersey from 1964 to 1971, he led the varsity team to five sectional championships and two state titles. He then served as an assistant coach at Rutgers, where he recruited two of the key players who later helped the team make it to the Final Four. In 1973, he became head basketball coach at the University of Detroit, compiling a 78--30 record over the course of four seasons. (After many of those victories, his jubilant dancing at midcourt earned him the nickname of Disco Dick.) Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons for one full season and 12 games, compiling a 34-60 record before being fired in November 1978.
A year later, Vitale snapped on a headset for ESPN's first college basketball broadcast. He now calls an average of two games a week as ESPN's top college basketball analyst, and one a week for ABC Sports. In 1995 he won a Cable ACE Award as best sports analyst.
Vitale has made being a loudmouth pay: He talks about hoops for a syndicated radio show on 125 stations, publishes a college basketball yearbook and writes a column for "Basketball Times." His fifth book, "Holding Court," was published last fall. He also makes 40 speaking appearances a year.
Before his hectic season starts, Vitale takes frequent weekend trips to South Bend to attend Notre Dame football games with his family and friends. We sent writer Richard Lalich to spend several hours with Vitale in a hotel coffee shop near the campus.
"Vitale is a genuinely nice guy whose frenzy for college basketball and its fans doesn't stop when the red light flicks off," Lalich says. "He's also remarkably candid and generous in answering questions--when you can get a question in. Every time he checked on the sogginess of his cornflakes, I took advantage of the opening."
[Q] Playboy: What simple thing do fans fail to understand about college basketball? What's the most ridiculous thing you've overheard someone say while watching a game?
[Q] Vitale: People think these guys go up and down the court, running and jumping, and there's no science to what's taking place. But there's so much teaching that goes on. When you go to a practice session and you see a Rick Pitino or a Mike Krzyzewski in the gym, it's like a scientist at work: the way they break the game down, the film, the two-man plays, the three-man plays, the ball reversals, the development of a fast-break series, the ball getting into the center of the court, coming with two wing people, the secondary, phase of the break, how you reverse it if the layup is not there and you're looking for the quick jump shot. The biggest misconception is that what those coaches are doing isn't hard. You give the players some freedom. But it's freedom within design.
[Q] Playboy: Are there activities in daily life that would benefit from your style of color commentary?
[Q] Vitale: You could do it with almost anything. I've had my dentist do a little commentary while he was working on me: "Hey, Dicky V is here, and he needs a TO, baby!" I think in any occupation there are guys who always call play-by-play. I'm sure guys driving the Federal Express trucks are saying, "Here we go, pulling into the driveway, baby! Let's pull it in! It's a slam jam baaam! It's dunkeroo! Federal Express, on time, flying through the sky!"
[Q] Playboy: Many of your broadcasting colleagues may also be bald, but they don't feel secure enough to reveal their heads on camera. What advice would you give them on letting go of their hair dependence?
[Q] Vitale: I would just tell a guy to have good self-esteem about the kind of person you are and don't try to be something you're not. People always worry what other people think. I'm just going to be myself and hope they take me for what I am. Baldness has never bothered me. There are a lot of things I'd love to have: I'd love to have two healthy eyes, I'd like to have a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger's, I'd like to have a face like Robert Redford's, I'd like to have hair like John Travolta's. It ain't gonna happen, man!
[Q] Playboy: Identify the worst-smelling college gyms.
[Q] Vitale: They all have that special basketball odor. To me, that odor is special, it's a positive rather than a negative. It's hoops aroma. I love to smell it when I walk into Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, or into Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, or into Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, or into Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. To me, it's like waking up in the morning and smelling those coffee beans. It gets my day rolling. When I smell the arena, and I hear the ball bouncing, and I hear the sneakers screeching on the floor, it's stimulation galore.
[Q] Playboy: What lessons did you learn about recruiting players when you were a college coach that could be applied to wooing a woman?
[Q] Vitale: Persistence. Persistence played a role with my wife, Lorraine. I was with a bunch of coaches 25 years ago and she shot me down a number of times. There's no lonelier feeling than walking over to ask her to dance, and she says, "Later." You come back to a table of eight or nine guys and they're jumping in your face, they're laughing at you, they're humiliating you, and then you go back--persistence in recruiting--you go back the second time. And you go back the third time. Finally, we danced. Danced the night away. And eventually we got married. If you're not persistent in the recruiting wars, you'll finish number two. And if you finish number two in chasing that superstar player too many times, you're going to have to go out and get a job, baby, somewhere where it's real work.
[Q] Playboy: You have 30 seconds: Shoot down the misguided theory that your game commentary is all shtick and no substance.
[Q] Vitale: I take great, great pride in my game preparation. I probably overprepare. I really take pride in teaching X's and O's. But once you get a reputation. . . . I can do a game in which 90 percent is X's and O's--breaking down the fast-break series, breaking down the passing game, breaking down the multiple defenses used by a team--and I can have one explosion on the air when there is a great dunk and I get carried away and I just let my emotions flow, and I'll be remembered for the dunk, and nobody will think about the other 90 percent. The meat and potatoes is what the game is all about. But when I'm watching that TV screen, I want to be entertained and educated. I don't want to be falling asleep into Zzzsville, Bored Land.
[Q] Playboy: People have been rewarded handsomely for imitating you in sound-alike contests. Reveal the secret of a dead-on impression of you.
[Q] Vitale: First of all, people see me, and rather than just saying hello, it's "Hey, get a TO, bay-beee!" "Looking like a PTPer, baby!" I guarantee every day of my life somebody is going to do me to me in public. But the one thing they all try to have--and I think it's part of me--is the enthusiasm, the spirit, the ex-citement. I try to get excited about a game. I think the kids playing deserve that, I don't care if it's the national championship game or just another game. Jim Simpson taught me that. By the way, Simpson in the remotes and Bob Ley in the studio have played a big role in helping me develop, because I came out of the locker room. I remember I was flattered one time when Howard Cosell said on his ABC broadcast [does Cosell], "Vitale. Dick Vitale. He's nothing but another member of the jock-ocracy. They come out of the locker room." And, man, I was flattered. I thought he was praising me. I found out later that he was ripping me. [Laughs] He was burying me. But that's OK.
[Q] Playboy: An impersonator might get the words right, but in the wrong situations and combinations. Deconstruct your own terminology: Which elements of your commentary can be put together and which ones can't?
[Q] Vitale: When I'm doing a commercial for a company, the writers will try to incorporate my terminology, and some of them get things a little confused. Things aren't awesome when you're going to call a time-out. The visiting coach is going to call a time-out if the other club is playing awesome. So you correlate the proper use of it all: "PTPer, it's showtime now, it's party time, it's rock-and-roll time."
[Q] Playboy: Do you plan to introduce any new terms this year? Do you decide from year to year whether you'll retire "Get a TO, baby?"
[Q] Vitale: I don't enter a season and look at my terms and say let's eliminate this one or let's add that one. It just happens. Plus, I get loads of suggestions from fans, kids on college campuses. I used one last year: A guy was nothing but nylon, NBN, and he was tickling the twine. I said, "There's a fire in the house! Better call up the fire chief, man, these nets are burning down!" Somebody sent me that and I used it. The fans offer those things, and I steal them.
[Q] Playboy: For those of us who haven't given up drinking, smoking and red meat, what are we missing?
[Q] Vitale: Getting up in the morning and feeling good. I don't want it to sound like I'm a tutti-good shoes. I go out and I can party with the best of them. I just happen to drink cranberry juice. I haven't had red meat in about five years. I try to keep my cholesterol count under 200 because I want to live. It's better than the other option. I don't have a problem with people who drink in moderation, but on college campuses, the binge drinking is incredible. These kids throw it down to be accepted by their peers. I used to go to lounges in my travels. I would get up and dance and have a little fun and laugh with all the people in the place. But now it has changed drastically. You make an innocent comment, and before you know it, somebody's jumping in your face and screaming at you. Many of the problems we hear about are either drug-related or alcohol-related. It's inevitable because the body is not functioning and you're not thinking like you should. I wish we could make Bobby Knight the drug czar in our country. Man, he would clean that sucker up big time.
[Q] Playboy: If Bobby Knight became the drug czar, just how would he handle the problem?
[Q] Vitale: Discipline. Bobby Knight would use the my-way-or-the-highway routine, and sometimes I think that approach might be the best. He's teaching his players to go out in the real world and contribute, to make it in life. There are certain people in this world who could be a success in anything they do. They bring a certain magnetic ability to unite people and move them in a positive direction. I don't want to say it's because of fear--well, a little fear. But if you're one of Knight's guys, he's very loyal. From the standpoint of management, Knight is very organized. When you see him heading the troops, everybody falls in line. And he would not be satisfied until it was completed. He would develop a winning game plan. It would probably be a very simple solution: You get caught with that stuff, we're going to tuck your butt away for life. [Laughs] Bobby's going to love reading that I'm saying he should get out of coaching and be the czar of the drug war.
[Q] Playboy: What new rules would you make for college basketball?
[Q] Vitale: I would like to see us move the three-point shot back to the distance used internationally. The three-point shot is becoming too dominant. Everybody is shooting it; there are too many attempts. I think we should widen the three-second lane to the international rules with the trapezoid, so you could move the big guy away from the basket and allow for more cutting and screening and going to the goal.
[Q] Playboy: Should players have to go to college to get to the NBA?
[Q] Vitale: No. We've got too many kids on campuses who don't want to be there. They haven't prepared to be there and they don't belong in college. There's nothing wrong with learning a vocation. I think we forget that society needs mechanics and carpenters. Why not have a minor league, a rookie league, in basketball? A kid comes out of high school, like Kevin Garnett did, and says, I don't want to go to college. I want to go to the NBA. So he goes to a rookie league, which is subsidized by the NBA. But part of the rookie league should be a deal that the youngster has to learn a vocation. He plays basketball a couple hours a day for the organization and then he learns a trade, so that in the event he doesn't make it in hoops, he has something for later in life.
[Q] Playboy: How much do you rely on coaches not hearing your broadcasts? Has anyone surprised you by taking your commentary seriously enough to be hurt by it?
[Q] Vitale: I try to be fair, I try to be honest. I'm sure that sometimes a coach isn't going to be happy when he's hearing a guy on TV screaming that he should get a time-out, but that's our job. I don't tell any guy how to coach. I'm being paid to give my opinion as to what I think should transpire in that game. Several years ago Kentucky was going through a major problem. There were accusations, there were all kinds of innuendo and stories that a lot of NCAA rules were being broken. I opened a telecast by saying I really believed Eddie Sutton would do himself and the university a lot of good if he would resign immediately, before the embarrassment and humiliation came down about an NCAA investigation showing that there had been problems and violations. Eddie was crushed. It turned out that I was right. There was an NCAA investigation and they did find some things wrong. But I felt bad because I know down deep that he was a good coach, and the toughest thing in television is to separate being the excoach and being the TV guy. Because these are the guys you grew with, and now you gotta walk in and you gotta jump on them.
[Q] Playboy: Yours is the last generation in which men named Richard refer to themselves as Dick: Cavett, Stockton, Schaap, Butkus and the others are all your age or older. To what do you attribute the shortage of Dicks among men under the age of 40?
[Q] Vitale: There aren't Dicks out there? What about baseball players? Dick Allen's my age. Dick Groat was my age. What about Dicks now? Dick Bennett is coach of Wisconsin, but he's about my age. What's Kotite's name, the football coach? Rich Kotite. They called me Disco Dick. I've been called a lot of Dicks. They've used Dick in many different classifications for me. All the people in the world of sports and TV and people I work with call me Dick, but my old friends call me Richie. I would be shocked if they called me Dick. My wife calls me Richie or Rich.
[Q] Playboy: Have you ever met a cheerleader that you didn't like?
[Q] Vitale: I think the spirit that exists in the ACC and the SCC is just incredible. You could say that almost all over. Those cheerleaders work so hard. I've gained so much respect for the work they put in, the hours, their dance routines, their love for the school, the spirit, the smiles. They don't get anywhere near the credit that they deserve. I've never met a cheerleader I disliked. They're always up personalities. Maybe we should send Derrick Coleman to meet with some cheerleaders to learn about how to smile, how to feel good, how to feel excited about life. It bothers me when I hear the Colemans and the--we could almost pick a team out there of guys who are always finding things to be unhappy about. We could call them my All-Crybaby Team. Certainly, Coleman and Dennis Rodman would head my list; they'd be co-captains.
[Q] Playboy: Who would be the other starters on your All-Crybaby Team?
[Q] Vitale: You've gotta throw in guys like Rod Strickland. He's unhappy in Portland, he's unhappy in San Antonio, he's unhappy everywhere he's been, and now he's unhappy with my guy P.J. Carlesimo. Benoit Benjamin would have to be in the middle. He hasn't lived up to his potential because of a lot of up-and-down mood swings. Chris Morris might be on there too, from out of Utah with the Jazz. It blows my mind when I hear athletes moan and groan--Derrick Coleman, getting $7.5 million a year, and saying he's unhappy and wants to be traded. For $7 million, you would think that he'd be happy playing anywhere, and you'd think he would put some banners high in the arena. The Michael Jordans, the Larry Birds, the Magic Johnsons, they produced, but they're not out there complaining about the dollars they made. But Dennis Rodman: "I'm unhappy." I don't care about his blue-green-yellow hair, because I just wish I had hair, but I do have a problem--being a guy who believes in the work ethic, coming from a family in which I watched my dad press coats in a sweatshop, watched my mother working in our cellar, sewing coats until she had a stroke--with hearing this guy say he's unhappy making millions, and yet he doesn't want to come to shoot-arounds, wants to come late all the time. I have a problem when there's a time-out and the coach says, "Will you all huddle and talk about our strategy?" and Rodman goes to stretch and lie on the sideline with a towel around him and takes off his shoes. Give me a break. The game is too big for that kind of stuff.
[Q] Playboy: We understand you hugged Bobby Knight on the set of Blue Chips and he knocked you down. Has that affected you when you've called Indiana games?
[Q] Vitale: It didn't affect me at all, because Bobby Knight and I talked about it right after it happened. First of all, I was wrong in sneaking up behind him. He didn't know it was me when I threw a bear hug around him and said, "Hey, want to fight?" I was only playing, and he knew later that I was playing. But he swung me back, boom, and I went down, man, because he's a big, strong guy. And Bobby, being the macho guy he is, wasn't about to let it go by just saying "I'm sorry." He burst out with a couple of comments. But I don't hold grudges, he doesn't hold grudges, and it's history. We talked about it and laughed, and he gave me lessons on the phone about how to protect my left. He said, "You're blind in your left eye. Don't sneak up on the left and throw your fist up and say you want to fight." I've done Indiana games since then. It certainly doesn't influence the way I call the game.
[Q] Playboy: Identify some of the college basketball players we should watch.
[Q] Vitale: I'll give you the influential new guys on the block, names that are going to be making an instant impact. Stephon Marbury--remember that name--at Georgia Tech, where they develop point guards. Marbury is going to be an instant hit. I can't wait to do one of his games. Ron Mercer is going to be a big star at Kentucky. He's an explosive player whom Rick Pitino will get to be a special player. Shareef Abdur-Rahim at the University of California, six feet, ten inches, from out of Marietta, Georgia, is going to make a big impact right out of the gate. Another impact player will be Robert "Tractor" Traylor over at Michigan: He's 300 pounds, six feet, nine inches--he's going to be a household name. He has a lot of Charles Barkley in him.
I'll also give you my All-American team, my All-Rolls-Royce team and my All-Solid-Gold-Superstars, by position. Point guard, Jacque Vaughn, Kansas. I think he's going to be a dynamite leader and a real, real good decision maker. My scoring guard, Kerry Kittles, multidimensional, love his ability, glad he came back to school, Villanova. Small forward, I'm going to go with Ray Allen: high-wire attack, sky walker, real high-riser, tremendous talent, from out of Connecticut, explosive. For my power forward I'm going to go with a rejecter, shot blocker, human eraser: Marcus Camby from Massachusetts. In the middle, Tim Duncan of Wake Forest. I think Duncan could have been the first player taken in the NBA draft last year.
[Q] Playboy: What product that doesn't have a spokesman would you be willing to endorse--such as a vegetable that no one but you enjoys?
[Q] Vitale: I know a product that I think I would be a natural for. I would love to be involved with pizza, because I identify with the spirit of college. I can see it now. All they've got to have is Dicky V invading the campus! They could have a bunch of kids sitting in the crowd and all we're doing is we're eating that pizza, baby. And I'm yelling, "Isn't this awesome, baby?" When I visit the college campuses the first place I go is the pizza shop! And I'm eating my pizza, baby! It is super! And we put the name of the company in.
awesome, baby! college hoops' excitable boy on critics, crybabies, the dick shortage and why bobby knight should be the nation's drug czar