At courtside with Dickie V., and hoping he can be a Prime Time Player this spring

“The soundtrack of our lives” has become a well-worn cliché. But, forgive me, here I think it’s appropriate to dust it off another time.

If you are a college basketball fan of the past four decades, the soundtrack includes the loud hyperbole, relentless enthusiasm, name-dropping, non sequiturs, cogent analysis and chain-saw voice of Dick Vitale.

That soundtrack has been considerably muted this year.

Vitale wrote on that treatment on his vocal cords, concurrent with his chemo for cancer, will sideline him for this season.

One thing that should happen this April:

If Vitale’s health permits, CBS should clear out a spot at the microphone for Vitale at the Final Four. Let Bill Raftery rest his vocal cords for a half. Yes, I know CBS and ESPN/ABC are competitors. But Vitale has never called a Final Four. Sentiment demands that he have the opportunity. The CBS college basketball product would not be nearly as strong had Vitale not helped bring it more into the mainstream on ESPN. They owe him, and his ESPN bosses owe him the free rein.

I fully recognize that Vitale is an irritant to many. He can tromp on one’s last nerve, if one were an impatient viewer. He can be a distraction to a great game, he can take off into outer space on a tangent and he can pander to coaches like a puppy.

I maintain this, however:

There are few people on this planet more passionate about his job and his environment than Dick Vitale. If everyone loved his or her job as much as Vitale does, our world would be a better place.

As many arenas as we’ve shared through the years, I don’t really know the man. But I have two good connections.

First, my friend and former boss Joe Distelheim helped launch Vitale’s career. Joe was sports editor at a Detroit newspaper and Vitale was coaching the Pistons. Joe enlisted Vitale to write a coaches’ perspective column for the newspaper during a Final Four. That was his gateway into media.

Second, I was covering the 1986 ACC Tournament in Greensboro. I had an end zone press row seat and one afternoon the seat next to me was left empty by the absent USA Today TV columnist. I turned around to see Skeeter Francis, the inimitable ACC PR man, standing there and heard him say, “Coach, why don’t you just sit here?”

It was Dick Vitale.

I introduced myself, dropped the names of some several mutual acquaintances and that got things rolling.

“You know,” he said, “this is the first game I’ve just got to sit and watch and not broadcast in three weeks.”

“Aw, Coach, just go ahead and pretend you’re on the air if you want to,” I told him.

And … he did.

It was a delight. There was none of the on-air bombast. It was just wonderful analysis. He noted matchup problems and defensive changes and subtle strategic moves. It reminded me that beneath the living, breathing exclamation point that is Dick Vitale on TV, there is a basketball savant. To this day, I don’t know I’ve ever sat elbow-to-elbow with anybody who knew the game better.

To hear that voice unamplified by a television speaker but no less excited simply to be at courtside remains a career highlight. The soundtrack this season is not nearly so resonant without Dick Vitale. Here’s hoping, first and foremost, for good health, and secondly, for some prime-time play when all the madness starts again.

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