That time I saw Dick Vitale in a parking lot


If you don’t know who Dick Vitale is, I envy you. He used to be a basketball-talking guy on the teevee box. He’s retired now (at least, I think he is; I don’t watch a lot of basketball) but back in the day—by which I mean the 1990s, in particular the years when I was in college and FSU was demonstrating an uncharacteristic level of competence in basketball, so we all watched it—Vitale was college hoops personified. He was everywhere. He was loaded full of catch-phrases like “it’s awesome baby!” and “diaper dandies” (his term for promising young players, one which never failed to get the bile rising in the back of my throat) and countless others. And my god, he was annoying.

As a writer, I feel like I should be able to describe Vitale’s voice and style, but I don’t think mere adjectives—shrill, grating, piercing, juvenile—can fully do it justice. I think it’s something you should experience for yourself.

At the time, Dick Vitale was everything I hated about the 1990s rolled up into an omnipresent flesh sack. He was overexposed, pointlessly loud, seemingly lacking in self-awareness, and completely content-free. And worst of all, he loved Duke University basketball. Fucking loved it, to the point where I began to strongly suspect he made his wife wear Christian Laettner and Grant Hill jerseys to bed once or twice a week.

That said, he never claimed to be more than he was, which was a basketball fan who loved his job talking about basketball. I can’t fault a person for loving their work. And by all accounts he’s a decent actual human being. He’s got a long history of charity work, and when I lived in Florida (he lived there too) I’d regularly see news stories about him getting involved in the community in some way or another. So, not a bad person, but an extremely annoying personality.

In the early 2000s, I was working for a software company in Sarasota, Florida. Our offices were on Siesta Key, a stunning little spit of bone-white sand and gently-swaying palms and rich Republican retirees. In other words, exactly the kind of place that would appeal to someone like New Jersey-born Dick Vitale.

One afternoon I took a stroll down to the convenience store a couple of blocks away to pick up an Arizona iced tea, which I used to do whenever I couldn’t stand being in my office for another second. I was rolling some work-related irritation over in my mind as I approached the parking lot when a candy-apple red Mercedes convertible cut me off and shot into an empty spot right in front of the store.

“He almost hit me,” I remember thinking. “What a prick.”

The driver was standard-issue Siesta Key archetype: old, male, kind of scrawny, wearing a matching royal blue outfit of polo shirt and tennis shorts, sunglasses, and a white ball cap that looked like the sort that would have a country club or a yacht club logo on the front. Without even turning off the engine, he threw open the driver’s side door and dialed a number on his car phone (this was long before you could link a smartphone to your car’s sound system). I could hear the phone ring on the other end, mostly because the stereo speakers were cranked as high as they could probably go.

“Hello?” a male voice on the other end said.

“Hey Tommy, how are you,” said the man in a near-shout, which he amped up for his next sentence: “It’s DICK VITALE.”

How about that, I thought. Celebrity sighting. You didn’t get many of those in that part of Florida. I took a closer look; yep, definitely him, though I never would have noticed, let alone recognized, him if he hadn’t said his own name so goddamn loud.

“Oh!” The voice on the other end of the line seemed genuinely surprised to hear from him. “Um, hi, Dick! What can I do for you?”

I went into the store, where I could hear the rest of their conversation as clearly as if I’d stayed outside. I’ve forgotten the specifics, other than it seemed to consist of nothing more than the two of them exchanging pleasantries back and forth for a few minutes. Then he hung up, finally turned off his car, and came into the store.

“Holy shit, Dick Vitale!” yelled the other customer. He was either a beach bum or someone working a construction job on the island—it could be tough to tell the two apart sometimes—and was pouring himself a gigantic fountain soda. He had a greasy brown mullet, a mustache and a cigarette tucked behind his right ear. “Love your work, sir!”

“Heyyyy, thank you, thank you,” Dick shot back instantly. “Love being out here, talking to the people, hearing from the fans. Great to meet you.”

And then he left. Without even buying anything.

It was pretty uneventful, as encounters with famous people go, but it stuck with me for one reason: he was clearly hoping to be spotted—otherwise, why make such a loud, public phone call in which he announced his name to anyone in earshot—which is why I was so puzzled that he’d first go to the trouble of hiding his face under that big hat and behind those wraparound shades.

And did he really have nothing better to do than drive around Sarasota all day trying to get people to recognize and fawn over him? I mean, there’s SO MUCH golf around there. Surely he could have gotten a tee time somewhere.

Meh. Famous people are weird.