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In the biggest fight of his life, Dick Vitale won’t let cancer win

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In the biggest fight of his life, Dick Vitale won’t let cancer win

Dick Vitale invites you to sit ringside for this heavyweight bout, on his dime, because he knows it is going to be a doozy. He posts pictures with the men and women working his corner — the doctors, nurses, and priests charged to help him — because he wants people to see that nobody beats cancer alone, not even one of the most indomitable forces in American sports.

No matter what you saw and heard on TV all these years, Vitale was never merely your eccentric uncle who clowned and carnival barked his way to fortune and fame. Richie from Jersey might not have had Hollywood looks or Harvard brains, but he could impose his will on almost anything, including cancer, which he has battled for decades on behalf of so many sick and defenseless kids.

Vitale picked a fight with the disease, raising millions upon millions for pediatric centers, and it was inevitable the disease would punch back. Now he is an 82-year-old lymphoma patient, in the middle of a six-month cycle of chemotherapy and steroid treatments. He’s scheduled to spend Christmas with his family in the Bahamas before returning to his Lakewood Ranch, Fla., home and his Sarasota hospital for his next chemo appointment. His goals are to live at least another seven years to see all of his five grandchildren graduate from college, and then to live another 11 years on top of that so he can broadcast an ESPN game at age 100.

Bet against him at your own peril.

‘Biggest Hurt of My Life’

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Richie from Jersey is one of the toughest guys from one of the toughest states. His parents had fifth-grade educations, but Richie said they had doctorates in love and a deep devotion to an honest day’s work. His father, John, pressed coats in a factory and worked security in a mall, and after his mother, Mae, a seamstress, suffered a stroke, John brought home garments that his wife sewed in their cellar.

dick vitale family mom dad
Dick Vitale with his parents, John and Mae.
Courtesy: Dick Vitale

Mae set an example for her three kids by dragging her stroke-diminished leg on daily walks to church. She told Richie to ignore those in town who made fun of his blind left eye, which had drifted all over the place since he accidentally pierced it with a pencil as a boy. Richie was ashamed of how that eye made him look, but his mother assured him he had the heart to be whatever he wanted to be.

He attended Seton Hall and taught middle school in blue-collar Garfield and took over whatever local team needed a coach. Vitale and friend Bob Stolarz assembled a group of eighth-grade football players, practiced for eight days and then beat the Garfield High freshmen when one of Richie’s boys returned an interception 75 yards for a score. “We became heroes in town,” Stolarz recalled. Richie coached a state-title team of teenage baseball players sponsored by a Garfield tire company, Benignos, the same extended family that produced WFAN host Joe. Vitale once ran out of pitchers at a tournament in Pennsylvania and had Stolarz give a kid from Nutley $10 in gas money to drive west and throw a two-hitter.

Richie hustled his way into a high school head-coaching job at East Rutherford and put that town on the map five years before Giants Stadium opened and made it an international dateline. He won a second straight state championship in 1971, when his 6-foot-10 center, Les Cason, the nation’s top-ranked player, blocked a shot in the final seconds at Princeton, down one to Gloucester City, and started a fast break finished by a winning Dwight Hall layup that gave the Wildcats a 28-0 season for the ages. “The locker room was a madhouse,” recalled Hall. “Coach Vitale was jumping up and down.” Richie ended up on a fire truck in the day-after parade.

His superstar, Cason, was a Kevin Durant-type player before his time, a big man with a handle and a jump shot. Jerry Tarkanian signed him to play for Long Beach State, but the kid was an academic mess and already adrift with a partying crowd. Vitale had his own demons — bleeding ulcers that reportedly required him to keep a carton of milk next to him on the bench, and an all-consuming pursuit of success that cost him his first marriage — but his teams responded to his approach. “Coach Vitale was the same persona in high school that he is now,” Hall said. “Great motivator. He was going 100 miles per hour.”

Broadcasters Jim Valvano and Dick Vitale relaxing at Vitale's home on November 20, 1992 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)
Broadcasters Jim Valvano and Dick Vitale relaxing at Vitale’s home on November 20, 1992.
Getty Images

Cason would say many years later that his coach sat him down one day in the bleachers and told him, “Leslie, I’m going to make it with or without you. You’re not going to make it if you don’t change.” Even Tark couldn’t get his recruit eligible at Long Beach. Cason played juco ball at San Jacinto in Texas before Vitale, then a Rutgers assistant, helped land him a spot at the state university. Cason averaged 4.9 points per game in 27 appearances, then dropped out of school and — after flunking an ABA tryout set up by Vitale — dropped out of sight.

He would live a New York City life of homelessness, drug addiction and jail time for dealing cocaine in Washington Square Park. Vitale would try to intervene, try to meet with his former center, try to send him money through an intermediary, all to no avail. Before he died of complications from AIDS in 1997, at age 43, Cason said his high school coach “did everything he could for me.” Cason’s best friend, Hall, confirmed that nobody could have done more than Coach Vitale did to try to help someone who wouldn’t be helped.

dick vitale hospital nurse cancer
Dick Vitale documents his battle with cancer, often sharing photographs of the nurses and doctors helping him fight.
Courtesy: Dick Vitale

Long after Richie became Dick, and then a wildly successful University of Detroit coach, he remained haunted by his failure to reach his greatest player. “What happened to Leslie,” Vitale would say, “is the biggest hurt in my life.”

But just as he’d promised Cason, Vitale made it to the big time — the NBA and Madison Square Garden — in the late 1970s. He coached the Detroit Pistons against the Knicks, and at the time Vitale was making a hundred grand a year, driving a team-issued blue Cadillac and wearing thick glasses and bright and ugly plaid slacks. His family was in the Garden crowd that night in 1979 when his Pistons gave back 17 points of their 18-point lead. The Knicks’ Toby Knight stole the inbounds pass and dunked the winner home with two seconds left. Outside the Detroit locker room, Vitale twice slammed his hand against the wall. “This is the 17th game we’ve lost in the last three minutes,” he told The New York Times. “I’ve earned the salary of my three-year contract already.”

He was fired a dozen games into his second season by Pistons owner Bill Davidson, who pulled up to his home in a limo and blitzed him with the news. Vitale cried. Like in high school and college ball, he had been a manic sideline presence who couldn’t sleep after defeats. “Nobody knows the pain and suffering that losing brings me,” he said then.

A TV executive who had been impressed with Vitale’s personality would call and ask him to be a color man for a new cable operation called ESPN. His dear second wife, Lorraine, talked him into it, and on Dec. 5, 1979, Vitale made a few hundred bucks broadcasting DePaul-Wisconsin. He had no idea what the hell he was doing, and it didn’t matter. The same personality that covered for his shortcomings became his weapon of mass-media destruction.

A Familiar Fight

When I was a teenager, Vin Scully did not make me fall in love with major league baseball. Howard Cosell did not make me fall in love with pro football.

Dick Vitale made me fall in love with college basketball. No sport has ever needed an over-caffeinated advocate more than college hoops needed him.

dick vitale yearbook photo
Courtesy: Dick Vitale

He called my home one bygone day to complain about something I wrote, and when my wife answered and he excitedly started to identify himself, Tracey cut him off. “Yeah, I know who you are,” she said. Everyone knew Dick Vitale’s voice. He hated being criticized, and loved to be loved. That’s why his high school yearbook described him as “everybody’s buddy.” He would spend his adult life sending friends and relative strangers signed books and basketballs, inviting them to games and leaving them phone messages for their birthdays and bar mitzvahs.

You know how things played out for him over four decades-plus in TV. Though many older people like to hang around college students to feel young, college students like to hang around Vitale to feel younger. They clamor for his autograph, chant his name, shout his most popular Dickie V-isms and bodysurf him through their crowds. They believe he is Awesome, baby, and never with a lower-case ‘a’. He became a world-famous commercial pitchman for products from A to Z, and he’s even more synonymous with the game than Coach K.

“But he never forgot us,” said Stolarz, his old Garfield and East Rutherford assistant. “He kept us with him all these years,” confirmed Hall, his point guard on those state title teams. The Wildcats still message with him and occasionally visit with him. Basketball brotherhoods die hard.

But Vitale’s legacy is not defined by the game, or even by his Hall-of-Fame run at ESPN. It’s defined by the war he’s waged against cancer since the 1993 death of his former colleague, Jim Valvano, as a board member of The V Foundation hoping to raise $7 million at his annual Sarasota gala for children in May to put his event total at more than $50 million raised for pediatric cancer research.

dick vitale wife lorraine
Dick Vitale and his wife of 50+ years, Lorraine.
Courtesy: Dick Vitale

Vitale has prayed at the bedsides of these children, and danced at celebrations for their recoveries, and wept at their memorial services. He was there for a boy who endured 1,200 doses of chemo, and for another who survived four bouts with brain cancer, and now those children are redirecting the love back to Vitale, sending him messages of hope. “They inspire me big time,” he said.

Vitale truly understands their struggle now. Two months after being treated for melanoma, he was originally told he had bile duct cancer before he got a lucky bounce with a less ominous diagnosis of lymphoma. Vitale posted a video saying he was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of support. “I’m going to win this battle,” he pledged. “Take that to the bank.”

He made it back in November to call UCLA-Gonzaga in Vegas, where he broke down after partner Dave O’Brien introduced the man who needs no introduction. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here,” Vitale said. “This is a really big thrill for me.”

Working the Villanova-Baylor game on Dec. 12, Vitale sobbed after the Baylor crowd gave him a standing O. Doctors had cleared him to work Louisville-Kentucky on Wednesday before that game was wiped out by positive COVID-19 tests at Louisville, giving Vitale an extended break until Auburn-Alabama on Jan. 11. That might be a good thing. Vitale was treated recently for heavy inflammation and hemorrhaging in his vocal cords, and doctors wanted him to rest his one-of-a-kind voice. But one way or another, he will be in Durham, N.C., on Jan. 14 to watch his twin grandsons Connor and Jake Krug play tennis for Duke, and then to call the Blue Devils’ basketball game against N.C. State the following day.

Life is still so, so good. His daughters, Terri and Sherri, and their families live five minutes away, and everyone made it to Maui last July to celebrate Dick and Lorraine’s 50th wedding anniversary. Vitale lives in a Florida mansion and has a playground in East Rutherford and a college court in Detroit named in his honor. “Not bad for a one-eyed, bald-headed guy from North Jersey,” he said.

Now doctors are trying to make Vitale cancer-free before his next gala in the spring. He will pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, because that was the prayer card his mother gave him as a boy, the card he forever kept in his back pocket. Never mind that Richie Vitale has been everything but a lost cause.

He’s been the long-reigning people’s champ, and it’s a beautiful thing to see all those he rallied around now rallying around him, lifting him, making him stronger, letting him know they won’t let him fight this fight alone.

So Richie from Jersey, tough guy from a tough state, will not be beaten. In fact, it’s going to be a blowout. Cancer is completely overmatched this Christmas.

Time to warm up the bus, baby.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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