There, he gave them a talk about the luxurious surroundings in which they had suddenly found themselves and about his own youth growing up poor in New Jersey -- his father was a coat-presser who worked a second job as a security guard; his wife's father was a doorman in New York City. And Vitale talked about how he had come to be a famous sportscaster paid "millions to broadcast kids' games." And how he had come to live in such a house. And he asked them to consider possibilities for their lives that they might not have imagined. Hire Vitale to give that speech to your company, and it will cost you upward of $30,000.
The Santa gig is not Vitale's only charitable effort. He's a big contributor to Notre Dame University, the alma mater of his two daughters and their husbands. And to the Jimmy V Foundation, a cancer-fighting organization named for Vitale's friend, Jim Valvano, the late North Carolina State University basketball coach. Locally, he's focused on the Boys and Girls Clubs. In May, Vitale spoke at a banquet marking the organization's success at raising $1 million. (Vitale had insisted on a bigger goal when the club's president first approached him seeking help raising $25,000, and Vitale enlisted help from stars like Monica Seles in meeting it.) He contributes another $40,000 in college scholarship money annually to the club and also speaks at other local charitable functions, including the Special Olympics.
Many may prefer more understated announcers who leave a little more oxygen in the arena. But Vitale's influence on broadcasting and college basketball is both undeniable and healthy. In addition to recognition in the form of a slew of honors like the 2001 Naismith Good Sportsmanship Award for contributions to basketball, there's not a college basketball fan under 50 who can't do a rudimentary Vitale impersonation or at least parse several of his infamous catch phrases. Vitale's gee-whiz verbiage is as natural as his grandsons' laughs when he tickles them; his passion for sports and the pleasure that burbles out of him are genuine.
The point here is not Vitale's example as a broadcaster, but the example he sets in how to be a Floridian, and a citizen. We live in a state where two of three people were born someplace else, where community is hard to come by, where corporate headquarters that serve as anchors for many communities are too often absent. And where local charitable groups go begging while new residents send checks back "home" to good causes in Ohio or Pennsylvania or New York. Or where all that's donated is a check, and never some valuable hours of volunteer time.
Vitale brought his family here 18 years ago from Detroit, just a few years out of basketball coaching and into doing games on the fledgling ESPN network, before either he or the network -- now celebrating its 25th anniversary -- had become icons. His daughters were accomplished tennis players and, able to live anywhere, he moved his family to Sarasota to be near the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Bradenton.
Success came in a field, broadcasting, that he had never set out to conquer. (After the Detroit Pistons fired him as their coach, he'd taken the ESPN gig to tide him over while he looked for another coaching job.) And success came relatively late in his life: Now 65, Vitale shows off his house with his memorabilia and workout room and theater and host of electronic controls and gizmos like a kid playing with somebody else's toys. He's perplexed by "some athletes who have all this stuff at 21 or 25 -- and they're ANGRY and UNHAPPY," he says, shaking his head.
Vitale and his family could have resided here under the radar the way many successful people do, but he's chosen to live here instead, even as he flies around the country to broadcast four to five games a week during basketball season and keep a steady series of speaking engagements. When he's in town, he's out and visible, with season tickets for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He goes to concerts. "I'm a huge music fan. People don't know that. Tim McGraw. Faith Hill. Tina Turner. I respect performers who can give goose bumps to a crowd."
More important, as success came, he didn't just bask in Florida's sunshine. He didn't just write checks. He invested his time -- and his hard-won fame -- in his community to make it a better place.
And if anything can qualify as awesome these days, maybe that should.