“Dickie V.,” a documentary tribute to ESPN analyst Dick Vitale as he deals with his mortality after being sidelined by cancer, has an understandably strong sentimental streak running through it. However, the lack of detail about Vitale’s influence over how college basketball is covered, to use his terminology, keeps him from being truly “Awesome, baby!” or a “primetime player.”
At 83, Vitale is clearly emotional as he reflects on his life, having thrived as a college coach before being fired by the Detroit Pistons and reluctantly stumbling into colour commentary, calling his first game for a then-fledgling network called ESPN in December 1979.
Vitale won over many fans and coaches with his infectious enthusiasm and love of the game, as well as his intimate knowledge of how they functioned. “There was really good basketball knowledge in the midst of all that passion,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey says.
Vitale’s story has many touching moments, from his romance with wife Lorraine to his friendship with the late Jim Valvano, another coach turned analyst who died of cancer. Vitale will be honoured with the Valvano Award at the ESPYs on July 20.
Vitale also speaks emotionally about losing vision in one of his eyes as an adult and his sensitivity to how that looked as a child.
At its heart, “Dickie V.” is a look at what Vitale has meant to college basketball and vice versa, and it’s here that the documentary falls short. Vitale’s friendship with coaches, in particular, influenced his approach to covering them, singing their praises while frequently overlooking their excesses.
“He builds. He does not tear down “says Kentucky coach John Calipari, which sounds admirable, except that there are aspects of collegiate sports that, as New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick pointed out several years ago, deserve to be torn down, or at the very least viewed through a more objective lens. Those remarks drew a rebuke from Vitale, who has never hidden his admiration for controversial coaches like Bob Knight and John Calipari.
“Dickie V.” also fails to address how other analysts have adopted Vitale’s bombastic style, some of whom have turned up the volume to ridiculous levels. While imitation is a form of flattery, it is also a part of his legacy.
Former Notre Dame coach turned analyst Digger Phelps refers to Vitale as “the master of marketing,” which has been part of his genius, serving as an ambassador for college basketball in a way that has earned him respect from his broadcasting peers and coaches alike. “I’m awestruck by Dick Vitale,” “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt says.
It’s difficult to fault ESPN’s sentiment or timing, coming as it does, as Vitale sobs, in “the final chapter” of a blessed life. But “Dickie V.” works better as a tribute than as a fully realised examination of not only Vitale’s distinct voice, but also the echoes associated with it.\