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Vitale: Basketball's One-Man Talkathon : With Him at Mike, TV Fans Sure to Get an Earful--and Then Some

March 28, 1987|NORMAN CHAD | The Washington Post

He is Dick Vitale. He is in our homes and he cannot be ignored any longer. He's the Crazy Eddie of college basketball, shouting and screaming and shucking and screeching and squealing and squalling endlessly.

From pre-game to post-game, he is in overdrive. He goes from zero to 60 in less than five seconds and races through the consciousness indiscriminately. If you're in his way -- which means you happen to be watching the game he is broadcasting -- you'll be run over by halftime and run over again and again and again until the final buzzer.

You can turn the sound down on your TV set and still hear him.

Vitale, 48, once was just a cult hero of sorts on ESPN. But these days the cable network goes to more than 40 million homes, and this season, Vitale has joined ABC as analyst for its Sunday afternoon college telecasts. So now, Vitale has become more than just a small problem; after all, anyone could accidentally stumble upon him because he's available on free television.

This is a state of video emergency. Like the supermarket checkout counters that don't stock candy or the prescription containers with hard-to-open bottle caps, TV sets ought to be equipped with devices to prevent young children or otherwise sensitive and emotionally troubled individuals from seeing an ABC basketball game with Vitale.

There is an up side to Vitale's color work -- he has a lot of interesting opinions and an unquestioned love and knowledge of the game. But there is a down side -- he expresses those opinions over and over again. His voice could peel the skin off of a potato, and when he's on one of his shrill rolls, he only brakes for small animals and commercials.

He went from coaching the University of Detroit to coaching the NBA's Detroit Pistons in 1978, and after he was fired 10 games into his second season, Vitale landed with ESPN. He's been with ESPN for eight years.

"I have a three-fold approach," Vitale said recently. "One, I try to be as enthusiastic as is possible. ... Two, I like to believe I'm as prepared as anyone in the business. I eat, drink and sleep the game. Three, I try to be candid and objective. I try to entertain and educate."

Indeed, Vitale succeeds in his goals -- he is enthusiastic, prepared and candid. And Vitale often offers sharp analysis. But his technique can be unbearable to the sober, sane fan who just wants to know the score. The game is almost just a backdrop for him; his play-by-play partners act almost as props. In his obsession to entertain, he forgets to pause from time to time to let us catch our breath.

Sometimes he's hype -- it seems as if every other player or team is the greatest this or the greatest that. Sometimes he's honest -- he'll tell us that a rout is a rout -- but he'll do it his way: "Blowout City, here we come!"

Then, of course, there are his trademark expressions. A long shot is a "Reggie" and a short shot is a "Pete Rose." An unselfish player is a "blender" and a big player is a "human spaceship." Players who try harder but get no respect are on his All-Avis Team and players who are sleepers are on his All-Rip van Winkle Team. (See accompanying glossary for a closer look at the language that makes Latin look practical in modern-day America.)

For all of his sayings, his signature call is the "Slam, Bam, Jam!!!!" that he thunders when a player makes an impressive dunk. When Vitale's in form, his "Slam, Bam, Jam!!!!" can shake a TV set off its stand.

Unquestionably, he has a following. At many of the games ESPN does, students wear "Dick Vitale Fan Club" T-shirts, which might indicate that a college education ain't what it used to be. Other viewers, with or without a college background, also might enjoy his comments much the same way that some people enjoy hitting their head against a wall repeatedly.

He was asked recently about his unbending carnival-barker's approach, the fact that he comes across like a neon-filled, billboard-plastered highway. "If you were around me, you'd find out I'm a likable guy. I'm an overachiever, there's no question in my mind," he said. "I'm an enthusiastic, up-tempo type of guy. ... I can keep people's interest. I'm not the type of guy who puts you in Z's-ville.

"When ABC decided to hire me, people were telling me, 'You're going to the big-time. You'll have to act different.' Hey, I've been in the big time. I've been myself on ABC. Hey, I'm Dick Vitale."

Yes, he is, which should serve as fair warning to the rest of us to always look both ways before crossing the road to turn on a basketball game.

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