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ESPN's Dick Vitale reaches out to kids with new book

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Updated: November 5, 2011 1:20PM

Dick Vitale had a plan. He was in Italy with his wife, Lorraine, ready to meet Pope Benedict XVI, when he thought he’d throw this one-liner at the Pontiff: “The most popular guy in Germany right now may be [Dallas Mavericks star] Dirk Nowitzki.”

But the Pope, who is from Germany, rendered Vitale speechless.

“It was a moment to treasure, and for me to be speechless . . . ” Vitale said. “I just told him to pray for the health of my family and peace in the world.”

It isn’t often that the ESPN college basketball analyst is at a loss for words, especially when it comes to basketball and pediatric cancer.

Vitale recently wrote the first of a series of children’s books entitled Dickie V’s ABCs and 1-2-3s ($14.95, Ascend Books) for ages 2 and up. Vitale also will be writing books on bullying and self-esteem.

But it’s pediatric cancer that gets Vitale emotional. Vitale makes a point to visit pediatric cancer patients at children’s hospitals, and Wednesday he will visit the Mercy Children’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where Vitale will pass out 500 ­copies of his book.

None of his children or grandchildren has been struck by the disease, but one of Vitale’s neighbors in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., was afflicted with a rare form of brain cancer. It was in her honor that Vitale got even more involved with cancer awareness.

“Three or four years ago there was a little girl who was a neighbor of mine, Payton Wright, and her family went through a tough time,” Vitale said. “I threw a party at my home to help keep the family afloat, and we raised about $150,000. She went from being a healthy girl to being paralyzed and blind. I watched it all unfold.”

In a phone interview, Vitale got emotional as he talked about Wright’s cancer battle, which ended when she died in 2007 at age 5. At one point, Vitale had a difficult time speaking of the girl’s funeral.

“No child should have to go through that,” Vitale said. “When I heard she passed away, I was devastated. I promised that I would not let Payton’s passing go in vain.”

Ascend Books publisher Bob Snodgrass said the new book’s idea took shape in 2008 after Vitale wrote Dick Vitale’s Fabulous 50 Players and Moments in College Basketball: From the Best Seat in the House During My 30 Years at ESPN.

And Vitale’s idea of ­giving the book’s proceeds to ­pediatric cancer research was a no-brainer, according to Snodgrass. Vitale uses the book series to promote The Dick Vitale Children’s Literacy Initiative.

“Dick wants to do everything he can to fight cancer,” Snodgrass said. “He was very close to [the late North Carolina State basketball coach] Jim Valvano, who passed away [from cancer].”

Once Vitale started working with Snodgrass on the book, the ideas came fast and furious. Each page features a letter of the alphabet, but Vitale wanted to put a catchphrase for each page on the book’s sound chip.

Snodgrass said it turned out that there wasn’t enough memory in the chip, so Vitale had to settle for having five phrases on the book’s sound button. But all the phrases appear on the e-book version.

Vitale might have the reputation as a fast talker when he calls games for ESPN, but Snodgrass hopes the book — and the subsequent series of books — changes people’s perceptions about Vitale.

“His passion for kids is off the charts,” Snodgrass said. “Dick is more diverse and more thought-provoking than people know. He’s not just the sound-bite guy. He’s deep and emotional.”

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