Vitale spoke from heart at Hall of Fame induction

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Throughout Friday, Dick Vitale was nervous and anxious about the most difficult speech of his life.

ESPN communications personnel were told Vitale had only five to eight minutes to speak at the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

But there was no way he could be expected to hold to that number. Good thing for Vitale, the other six members of the Class of 2008 -- Pat Riley, Adrian Dantley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, William Davidson and Cathy Rush -- averaged more than 20 minutes apiece.

Vitale went 29. And in a class he admittedly felt dwarfed by and in awe of, Vitale was once again a star.

In each second, every minute, Vitale was genuinely Vitale.

I have seen Vitale speak countless times -- in front of thousands at Madison Square Garden during the Jimmy V Classic, at a charity event in his Sarasota, Fla., home and in front of producers at ESPN -- and in each instance, Vitale has spoken from his heart.

He didn't disappoint Friday night. He told stories, praised Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson and spoke glowingly of his presenter, Bob Knight. Vitale also told his life story, of a boy recovering from losing the sight in one eye, to rising to the top of his profession as an NBA coach, to his subsequent firing, to his hiring at ESPN in 1979, to his passion for raising millions for cancer research. And he spoke of his love for wife Lorraine and daughters Sherri and Terri and their families.

All this emotion was real, especially after the year he has had. He learned this past December that he had lesions on his vocal cords and was told they might be cancerous. He waited two weeks for the biopsy to come back clean. But he still needed surgery and was done broadcasting for two months before he made a triumphant return to the sideline at the Duke-North Carolina game in February.

Fellow inductee Olajuwon recalled how Vitale had nicknamed him "The Dream," and on a tribute video, play-by-play partner Mike Patrick said that if Vitale were an act, it wouldn't work. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said no one has been as enthusiastic and showed as much passion for the game as Vitale.

"It has been a very emotional year," Vitale said, clutching his Hall of Fame trophy late Friday night. "There was a point where I thought my career was over and done. To get to this moment, to stand here, in this exclusive club …"

It seemed only fitting that Vitale was inducted with Davidson, the Detroit Pistons owner who hired and fired him nearly 30 years ago.

"What they told me to do is to be myself and to talk from your heart, with no notes, and that's what I tried to do," Vitale said. "What this means is two things: No. 1, basketball has been very good to me. It opened up doors to me that I never would have dreamed of, and I know I've had so much support from my family and from ESPN. This doesn't happen alone. But the greatest gift I have is my family. It's overwhelming. I thought I would be a basket case."

When the Hall of Fame class and all other attending inductees were asked to the podium, Vitale stood on the stage, holding his trophy and looking like a little kid.

He actually seemed almost small. He was, literally and figuratively, in shock of what had occurred this night.

For those of us who work with him and know him well, there is no denying this was a deserved moment for him and one he'll never forget.

He delivered Friday night, just as he always does when called upon to speak from his heart. But he has never been as humbled as he was this night. Vitale waited years to be included in this exclusive club, and maybe that contributed even more to his appreciation.

Vitale said the one message he will never forget came from Bob Lanier. He said Lanier told him, "We weren't too long together with the Pistons, but we'll be together in one of the most exclusive clubs for the rest of our lives."

Vitale went on to say he couldn't believe he was in the Hall with people he idolized, like Jerry West and Bob Cousy. He said he hoped he conveyed his appreciation.

"I hope it was good," Vitale said of his speech.

It was classic Vitale. That's all anyone could expect, that's what they wanted, that's what they got -- genuine Vitale.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.