Loss is something the college basketball world deals with all the time.
Every game that is played, one team loses. At the end of each season, programs lose players due to graduation or early departure to the NBA. But those don’t come close to matching the losses the entire sport has suffered this month with the deaths of legendary head coaches Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian.
Wednesday will mark the first trip down Tobacco Road for North Carolina to battle Duke since Smith’s passing. What is always an emotional night on the college basketball calendar will also coincide with the first Blue Devil home game since the game lost Smith—who made up one half of legendary rivalry games for decades before his death at age 83.
And as the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium honors Smith’s life and legacy, the man who has been the voice of college basketball’s greatest rivalry won’t be broadcasting to millions of television viewers for the first time since 1979. Monday, reports surfaced that ESPN’s Dick Vitale will not call Wednesday’s matchup between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Dan Shulman—Dickie V’s usual partner in crime—will be joined by Duke legend Jay Bilas for the 239th installment of the historic series.
Before you hurl your computer across the room in outrage, let’s take a step back. Vitale isn’t gone forever—the 75-year-old is likely to participate in at least one more Duke-North Carolina broadcast before he calls it quits. Losing him from Wednesday’s game is not a loss to mourn like that of Smith, a transcendent figure in both the sport of basketball and the history of North Carolina.
But I’d be lying if I said Duke-North Carolina wouldn’t be a little different without the strained, throaty, high-pitched voice of Dickie V. For anyone under the age of 36, he is the only voice they’ve known when it comes to college basketball’s most heated rivalry.
Depending on where your loyalties lie, everyone has their favorite Dick Vitale moment. For our neighbors about eight miles down the road, it could be his call of Jerry Stackhouse’s reverse slam in 1995. Those who prefer a darker shade of blue could be more partial to his reaction to Jeff Capel’s 40-footer at the buzzer to send that same game to double overtime. Others prefer the way his calls have spanned the years—hundreds of sensational performances by diaper dandies across America, leaving him asking every time, “Are you serious?”
This isn’t to say that Vitale is perfect by any stretch. Earning the dubious nickname “Dukie V,” Vitale is oft-accused of being too friendly to the Blue Devils, who for the past 25 years have been the nation’s most hated college basketball program. In recent years, he has grown slower to the punch. Take 2012 for example, after Austin Rivers completed Duke’s most improbable comeback in the history of the Tobacco Road rivalry with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The moment was without question overwhelming, but all you heard from Vitale was, “Oh...oh...unbelievable.”
As years have gone by, he’s started to call fewer games, reserving his energy for college basketball’s biggest stages. I remember flipping through the channels last Saturday and seeing Vitale calling Kentucky’s shellacking of South Carolina—a mediocre SEC game—confused that ESPN would assign him to a game of such little consequence.
Doing anything for upwards of four decades is going to take its toll, no matter what that is. But even without the same lyrical prowess of decades past, watching a game called by Dick Vitale is an experience within itself.
Seeing Vitale in Cameron Indoor Stadium these last three years has been like watching him in his natural habitat. He feels so comfortable within a space where outsiders normally can’t feel any more unwelcome. He feeds off the energy of the building and the magnitude of the moment.
The phrase “years young” when describing a person’s age is thrown around often—rarely is it ever truly deserved. You want to see a man 75 years young, watch Dick Vitale crowd-surf the Cameron Crazies.
Watching Wednesday’s game without him will be sad, especially for people my age. We can appreciate the accomplishments of Dean Smith, but are unfortunately too young to truly understand them. To us, Dick Vitale represents a more tangible and irreplaceable piece of this rivalry that is being laid to rest prematurely.
Moments of silence tend to accompany mourning. Wednesday, the silence itself will also be mourned.
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