By TOM SHANAHAN
Mercifully, another year enduring Dick Vitale broadcasts has wrapped up. Why is he so popular? He reminds me the dumbing down of America is a cultural trend that similarly foisted the Kardashians upon us.
Yes, he draws ratings, but does he say anything besides the obvious and then repeat it?
There was a time when Vitale was a capable analyst, but that was before he pursued his financially rewarding TV persona. He has aged into a cartoon character barnacled to famous coaches. He doesn’t do his homework. I speak and type with more Vitale background than most college basketball fans. My first encounter with him was at a basketball skills camp I attended in the summer of 1973.
Vitale, the newly named head coach at the University of Detroit, was guest coach for a day at the Wolverine Basketball Camp located in the small northern Michigan town of Wolverine.
At the time I was a 6-foot-3 center on my high school team entering my senior year. I weighed 165 pounds — an awkward period when I considered it a curse to be unable to gain weight. The previous year attending the camp I had gained a shooting touch thanks to Michigan State guard/forward Mike Ridley, who was then a Wolverine counselor before he transferred to Northern Michigan.
I attended the camp both years at the encouragement of a basketball buddy, Byron Kramer. Byron was the kind of guy who practiced step-and-drive moves over and over — boring stuff like that. He once attended a Detroit Pistons exhibition game in Grand Rapids and soaked up Dave Bing’s defensive techniques.
Byron — a track coach at Oglethorpe University near Atlanta — went on to play a little basketball at Ferris State University in our hometown of Big Rapids under Jim Wink, a legendary coach with 326 career wins. The campus arena is named for him. Wink would have coached circles around Vitale.
When Vitale appeared at the camp, he asked for a volunteer to demonstrate a defensive stance. Byron hopped up front, proud of his David Bing-modeled position.
Vitale screeched, “Surely you don’t play defense like that!”
That became our running gag-line in pickup games; you beat someone for a score and cackled, “Surely you don’t play defense like that!”
We felt we learned more from Bill Ullenbruch, a camp founder and Michigan Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Famer who won nearly 400 career high school games, and his counselors, even though they never achieved Vitale’s fame or bank account.
Our respect for Ullenbruch and Ridley and dismissal of Vitale has lived on. In fact, much to my chagrin Byron used the “Surely you don’t play defense like that!” line at my expense in a high school game our senior year, prompting me to laugh in the middle of a contest with a close score.
I say chagrin because we were opponents in high school after we were teammates in middle school. My parents moved to a neighboring rural setting and I played for Chippewa Hills, a consolidated district high school comprised of four small-town cliques. Our basketball roster had zero sense of team chemistry.
What I didn’t learn about defense from Vitale or teamwork from my high school experience I came to understand as a sportswriter. Winning teams possessed bonding qualities and those without the trait failed. In my writing career I chronicled players and coaches with team unity. I typed with a journalist’s eye for anecdotes and an envious heart for what I missed as a high school athlete had I remained in Big Rapids.
But you don’t have to be a sportswriter to cringe over how much Vitale ingratiates himself with famous coaches, “diaper-dandies” and the student sections he wades into when the TV camera is pointed their way.
Now, Vitale, of all people, decries those who criticize young college players who don’t live up to their recruiting hype in this one-and-done era. He’s the guilty party who started the “diaper-dandy” hype.
Last week before the North Carolina-Duke game Vitale said it was the biggest rivalry in all of college sports.
“Surely you don’t broadcast like that!”
Has Vitale ever heard of football rivalries — some with more than a century of history — such as the Army-Navy Game, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-Notre Dame. Duke-North Carolina basketball was a regional Tobacco Road rivalry until Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski arrived to challenge North Carolina’s Dean Smith supremacy in the 1980s with a boost from the dawn of cable TV.
Hey, I’m not alone dismissing Vitale as a cartoon character and sycophant. Distinguished announcer Verne Lundquist recently spoke with “Sports Business Journal” in a report picked up by “Awful Announcing.” Lundquist said, “I like the storytellers. I like the guys who write well. Jim McKay was a great writer. Jack Whitaker was a great writer. Dick Enberg was a great writer. I don’t think that enough credit is given to the necessity of writing in broadcasting.”
He added Vitale is “an acquired taste.” That’s a mouthful; announcers rarely criticize each other.
John Feinstein, in his book “One on One,” referenced Vitale and the late Jim Valvano: “Since his death a lot of myths have grown around Valvano. One of is that he was close friends with Dick Vitale. He wasn’t. They were colleagues, and Vitale was genuinely torn apart by Valvano’s death and has worked night and day since his death to raise money for the V Foundation. But they were never close.”
Vitale loves being a pseudo-celebrity more than he does breaking down a game. Without Vitale jumping on board with the V Foundation for some noble work, I’m not sure there is much difference between him and the Kardashians.
The dumbing down of America explains how they became popular.
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