- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

At the beginning of a conference call with ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale on Monday, the moderator warned reporters Vitale might not be his usual loud and verbose self.

He might have been kidding.

Vitale, two months removed from surgery on his vocal cords, sounded as robust as ever, speaking excitedly about his return tonight for the game between North Carolina and Duke in Chapel Hill.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I feel like a new guy.”

Hoops fans have not heard Vitale since December, when they might have noticed a deeper, raspier tone as the announcer bellowed about “PTPers” and “Diaper Dandies.” Vitale noticed it, too.

“I make a living speaking,” he said. “It really became a problem for me.”

The cause of his troubles: ulcerated lesions all over his left vocal cord, the result of acid reflux. A biopsy came back negative for cancer, but within days he had surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

There may be no announcer for which vocal surgery is more unsettling. Vitale is known — and often parodied — for his boisterous style. And his voice and vibrant personality have made him one of the most sought-after public speakers in all of sports.

So it is hard to imagine he went from Dec. 18 to Jan. 13 without being permitted to speak, scribbling on dry-erase boards and notepads to communicate.

While in recovery, he came down with two bladder infections and required surgery on his prostate, something he found even more troubling than his throat issues.

And there was another scary moment when, after doctors told him to try and utter words, they did not immediately come out.

“There was a moment when I thought I’d never broadcast a game again,” Vitale said. “I thought my career was over. But I got a new lease on life.”

Vitale’s surgeon, Steven Zeitels, has advised him he can return to work without risking further problems. But he has instructed Vitale to rely on his broadcast microphone and monitor his volume, speaking not from his throat but from his diaphragm. Vitale won’t announce doubleheaders or games on back-to-back nights.

“It’s not like I can go out there with ‘It’s awesome, baby!’ and all that stuff,” he said. “I have to be smart about it.”

Doctors will be alongside Vitale as he works Saturday’s Georgetown-Louisville game, gathering real-time data on how the announcer’s vocal cords work. The tests are similar to those performed on Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the band Aerosmith, after he had vocal surgery.

Vitale, 68, said he now feels great physically and is back to playing tennis several times a week. Both he and ESPN executives said they expect him to continue broadcasting college basketball until he’s at least 75.

“I would not want my career to end because of a physical ailment,” Vitale said. “It’s going to end. Let’s face reality. But you’d like to be able to call that shot.”

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