Vitale, 82, immediately began choking back tears.
“It’s great being here, Dave. I didn’t want to cry,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here. This is really a big thrill for me.”
Vitale revealed in October that he was diagnosed with lymphoma after an apparently unrelated case of melanoma was spotted earlier in the year. While the melanoma was surgically removed and he was medically cleared of that issue, Vitale said in October that he was facing six months of chemotherapy, along with steroidal treatments.
In an ESPN announcement last week that Vitale would return for his 43rd season with the network, he said, “Knowing I’ll be courtside with all my buddies and calling Number 1 versus 2, this is the best medicine I could ask for.”
The announcement included a statement from a member of Vitale’s medical team in Sarasota, Fla., who said it was “safe for him to travel” to the game, which was staged at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena.
There has effectively never been a time when Vitale was not the voice of college basketball for ESPN, given that he joined the network just months after its launch in 1979. For decades, following the death from cancer of his close friend and fellow former coach Jim Valvano, Vitale has used his platform to raise awareness and funds to fight the disease.
“I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that cancer can have on families, on children, and on all of our loved ones,” he wrote in October. “It can bring you to your knees. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. It robs you of so many things, including life itself for some of the most unfortunate patients.”
Now Vitale is battling cancer. Seemingly always upbeat, he said recently that he even found a bright side to his current situation.
When he got his October diagnosis, Vitale was initially informed he had bile duct cancer, a rare condition that can have a low survival rate. Additional tests, however, changed that diagnosis to lymphoma, which is more treatable.
“I was so happy,” Vitale said with a laugh this week to Yahoo Sports. “And who is happy to hear they have lymphoma?”
Vitale told ESPN viewers Tuesday: “When they walked in and told me I had cancer — they thought it was bile duct cancer, and it was really going to be a serious surgery and all — I never dreamed that, at 82, I’d ever be at courtside again. But to be here today — I’m sorry, I hope I don’t cause a problem out there, but I’m feeling so emotional.”
He then paused to collect himself before diving into his 43rd season of calling college basketball contests in his inimitable, energetic style.
“The game is the big thing,” Vitale declared, “so let’s get this game going.”