The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame welcomes, among others, television commentator Dick Vitale as the most recent class is inducted this weekend. Vitale, for whatever faults he might have as an on-air personality, is a huge fan of Princeton basketball and was a big part of the Tigers' glory run through the late ’90s and beyond.
Vitale did several Princeton games on ESPN, including the win over Wake Forest in the 1997 Jimmy V. Classic and the 1997 Princeton-North Carolina game at the Dean Smith Center when the Tigers suffered their only loss of that regular season.
For Princeton fans who were at the Meadowlands for the 1997 Jimmy V. event, there is no forgetting the speech that Vitale made between the Princeton win in the first game and the start of the second game. It was an impassioned on the devastating effects of cancer that went for 15 minutes with a hand-held mike at center court in front of 15,000 fans. It was a mix of humor and heartfelt heartache, and when it was over, no one in attendance was unmoved.
About an hour before Princeton's game at North Carolina that same season, Vitale stood at floor level, midcourt, at the Dean Dome. The doors had opened, and there was a line up to the mezzanine in the giant building of kids waiting for his autograph. He signed every one, engaging every kid and family along the way, all the while carrying on a conversation with Brian Earl, then a Princeton guard and now an assistant coach.
During the broadcast of that game, Vitale called on Princeton fans to show up at Jadwin and support the team, complaining that to that point, there had been "half a house" at the home games. Princeton's next home game was against Manhattan; the game was a sell-out.
When James Mastaglio wanted to contact Vitale for a part of his senior thesis, Vitale's response was unflinching. "Give him my home number," he said.
Vinnie DiCarlo was an intern in the Princeton Office of Athletic Communications 13 years ago. Before coming to Princeton, he had spent some time at UConn, and he had a picture on his desk of him and Vitale, who was sporting a huge smile. DiCarlo told the story of the picture, which had been taken by a friend of his. DiCarlo said he was going to sneak up behind Vitale and have his friend snap the picture as soon as he got there. When he did, Vitale grabbed DiCarlo and put him in a bear hug. "That's not a picture," Vitale said. "This is a picture." He then posed with DiCarlo.
It's easy to judge Vitale from his overbearing on-air personality, his cliched schtick, his pro-Duke leanings and his "all coaches and players are great" overbearance. For those who've never met him, though, the in-person side of him is unbelievably impressive. He is an amazing public speaker, and his ability to interact with people remains unrivaled.
And, of course, he has remained a huge fan of the Tigers. Add it up, and it's great to see him in the Hall of Fame.