This wasn't just the emotional candor sports fans have come to expect from college basketball's most famous voice. The 68-year-old Vitale was making his return to TV after two months in which he had undergone and recovered from throat surgery, followed a month later by a prostate operation.
"I feel like I am 12 years old again," Vitale says from his home in Sarasota, Florida. "When I was laid up, I felt like I was my age, and I don't ever want to feel that way again."
For three seasons, Vitale struggled with a raspy and hoarse throat, which he did not know was caused by ulcerous lesions on his left vocal cord. "Bocelli I am not — never will be," he says. "But it was becoming a hindrance to me and to what I do." It was noticeable to his boss, ESPN coordinating producer Dan Steir, who politely inquired if Vitale had checked it out. "I went to a number of throat specialists, and everyone was saying it was acid reflux," Vitale says. Finally, his doctor in Florida sent him to see Dr. Steven Zeitels, the director of the Mass General Hospital Voice Rehabilitation Center.
Zeitels told him he needed surgery and that it was possible the lesions were cancerous, news that left Vitale in tears. "I was a basket case," he says. "I was so scared of the unknown, that it would be cancer, that I would not sound the way I had, that my career would be over." Luckily the lesions were benign, but after the Dec. 18 surgery, Vitale was not allowed to speak for three and a half weeks. When Zeitels finally gave him permission to start talking, he couldn't do it. "I teared up. He told me to count to 10, so that is how I began talking and haven't stopped since."
Zeitels says Vitale is "a lucky guy," but he wasn't so fortunate during his recuperation, when complications from the anesthetic brought to light unrelated prostate problems that required surgery. Vitale relied on a positive attitude he developed as a child and says that was the turning point back to health. "I lost my left eye when I was about 3 or 4," he says. "It all started with a pencil. I thought it was the end of the world. My mother told me: 'Don't feel sorry for yourself.' And I never have, since I don't even know what it is like to see with two eyes."
So Vitale is back — and better than ever. He's in great physical shape. "My doctor told me I have the body of a 40-year-old," he says with a laugh. He was recently nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He's even willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction that this year's Final Four will come from these seven teams: Tennessee, Memphis, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA and Georgetown. "I have a new lease on life," he says. "I am more thrilled than I have ever been to be courtside at a basketball game — every game is now so special."
That, as Vitale would say, is awesome, baby. Totally awesome.
Vitale calls the Duke/North Carolina rematch on Saturday at 9 pm/ET, on ESPN.
Check out some of Dick Vitale's memorable moments in our Online Video Guide.
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