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Vitale devoted to raising funds for cancer research

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Published:   |   Updated: May 15, 2014 at 09:40 AM

Several times a day, Dick Vitale prays to a laminated card in his pocket, a gift from his mother when he lost sight in one eye as a child. It’s a painting of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

One thing, though.

Vitale, ESPN’s non-stop college basketball analyst, doesn’t believe in lost causes.

“I don’t like that word – ‘can’t’ – I don’t like it,’’ he said.

If he’s devoted to finding a solution, it simply requires more creativity, more determination and more passion.

And that’s why Friday night’s ninth annual Dick Vitale Gala, a $1,000-a-plate affair at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota designed to raise money for cancer research through the V Foundation, will be another example of how his life’s work has become so much more than broadcasting.

When Vitale’s friend, former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, died of cancer in 1993, the V Foundation was formed. “Don’t give up … don’t ever give up,’’ Valvano implored his audience the night he received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Valvano dreamed of a cure for cancer and hope that his death would aid in that legacy. Vitale has made that cause into his own.

“I don’t know how much time I have left,’’ said Vitale, who turns 75 in June. “But whatever time I have will be devoted to this.’’

Funds from Vitale’s event will go to research grants at All Children’s Hospital and the Moffitt Cancer Center. The event, which honors Alabama football coach Nick Saban, Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey and Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, is sold out, but Vitale is seeking contributions from the Tampa Bay community.

The gala office can be reached is 941-350-0580, the foundation at 1-800-4JimmyV. Information is available online at dickvitaleonline.com.

“I am not shy about asking for money,’’ Vitale said. “Money funds research and research is how we find a cure. When you are around these kids, you will touched and you will be moved. You will find a way to give what you can.’’

Pediatric cancer, in particular, is Vitale’s passion.

He wants to raise a record $2-million at the gala, which attracts numerous sports celebrities, including basketball coaches John Calipari (Kentucky), Bill Self (Kansas), Billy Donovan (Florida), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Steve Alford (UCLA) and Jay Wright (Villanova), along with Florida State University football coach Jimbo Fisher. Bucs coach Lovie Smith and University of South Florida football coach Willie Taggart also are scheduled to attend.

Vitale has pledged to raise separate $250,000 cancer-research grants in the names of two children who lost their battles with cancer.

“It tears your heart out,’’ Vitale said. “It shouldn’t be happening, parents burying their kids, losing their kids, but it keeps happening. That’s why I’m so driven, so emotional. I have to do what I can.’’

The research grants will be donated in the names of Michigan’s Lacey Holsworth, 8, who attended last year’s gala and died from neuroblastoma, and Bradenton’s Eddie Livingston, 5, who died in November.

“Lacey Holsworth, I have never seen an 8-year-old who touched so many lives,’’ Vitale said.

Holsworth became known as “Princess Lacey.’’ She formed a bond with the Michigan State University men’s basketball team and became close with Spartans player Adreian Payne, whom she accompanied to the Spartans’ Senior Day. She wore a long blond wig because chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out.

Livingston was nicknamed “Superman’’ because his family felt he could do anything. He was always happy. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and fought it for nearly three years before succumbing on Nov. 24.

Vitale will honor their memory, but also pay tribute to children who are still battling. Brain cancer survivor Jack Hoffman, 8, who became an Internet sensation last year after running 69 yards for a touchdown during the University of Nebraska spring football game, also will attend the gala.

“If you’re not moved by the things you see and hear at Dick Vitale’s function, you’re not alive,’’ Izzo said.

“As much as Dick has done to promote basketball, as much as he has done for ESPN, what he’s doing in cancer research is by far his most important work,’’ said Calipari, who plans to attend the gala despite undergoing hip-replacement surgery following Kentucky’s defeat in the national-title game.

The coaches and sports celebrities pays their own expenses to the gala – and they often contribute additional money for cancer research, Vitale said. When he calls the coaches asking for a favor, they always respond positively.

“It goes back to the time when I was a high-school coach and I was desperate to coach in college,’’ Vitale said. “I got turned down left and right. I was discouraged. I was distraught.

“My mother told me, ‘Richie, you have such a spirit. That will carry you far in life. Always be nice to people and they will be nice to you.’ That’s what I have tried to do. And now, when I ask people to help me in this, they are so nice. This is my cause now. I am totally dedicated to this cause.’’

And in Vitale’s eyes, even in his daily prayers to St. Jude, this cause is never lost.

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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