Sunday, March 9, 2008

Have you had enough of Dick Vitale?

I am an avid basketball fan – especially college hoops.

I like the NBA, too, but I restrict my viewing to playoff time. I find the regular season too long, and the players playing with such ennui to captivate my attention. During the regular season, I find invariably that one spectacular play is followed by some exhibition of sloppy fundamentals that would make a grade school coach cringe. So I quit watching. Come playoff time, the tenor changes, and the teams begin to play a version of basketball that makes the sport so rich: Pick and rolls executed to perfection, switches on defense, box outs on rebounds. The kind of stuff that makes basketball the great game that it is.

The college game showcases good basketball more regularly, and I guess that's why I like it so much. There's so much enthusiasm from the players, so much passion from the fans. So intoxicating, a punch bowl of fun cloaked in naked competition that only sports can give.

I've linked Dick Vitale with that passion and that fun for some time. I remember soon after he burst on to the scene as a commentator, throwing out those signature phrases like "diaper dandy" and "PTPer (prime time player." He was a novelty, exciting and fun. Sure, he yelled a lot, but you knew his love for the game was genuine and boundless. He also loved the fans. I remember when he came to a game at Duke, my alma mater. He strode to the area where I was sitting, climbed into the section and squealed like a little boy when we hoisted him up and passed him up and down the stands. There's a picture in People magazine of him afterward, with a big smile on his face, surrounded by zanily dressed Duke fans, myself included. Those were the days!

Much later, I called Vitale on his cell phone to comment on a preview of the Providence Friars I was writing for The Associated Press. He wasn't there, so I left a message. I didn't expect a call back, but within an hour, he returned my call, as he was waiting for a flight to somewhere. We spoke for about 15 minutes – plenty of time for a story of this kind. He was gracious, kind and seemed genuinely interested in my story and contributing to it. Considering how many phone calls he gets, I think it was awfully classy that he found the time to fit yet another sports reporter into his schedule. I can't think of many other big-name sports commentators who would have returned my call.

So, I've liked Vitale. But I've got to say that I think his shtick has become tiresome. The constant yelling. The now-overused signature phrases. The off-subject (and I mean completely off-subject) digressions during the game. The shameless praise of certain coaches and the cult of adulation he has for certain institutions (like Duke). It all detracts from a man who knows the game well and has insightful comments to make, when he chooses. But he chooses to make on-the-game comments less and less. I don't know why. It's as if he loses himself from time to time, when he goes off on tangents. He can't shut the spigot. If only Vitale would stick to analyzing the game, he'd be great. But he doesn't, and that's a shame.

My dad has been complaining about Vitale for years. We were talking on the phone today, conducting a post-mortem on the Duke-UNC game when Dad brought up Vitale again.

"Tell all your friends," he said, "to write ESPN and tell the station to fire that guy. I am so sick of him. The yelling. He never talks about the game. Why is he still on TV?"

I have to agree. I wonder how Vitale has lasted as long as he has. But my guess is he has the TV equivalent of tenure. He is the face of the college basketball commentator, and he can't be let go.

My dad would be trying, believe me. But he can't get his e-mail to work.

Damn that technology.

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