Vitale's raspy, very thankful.

Position:SPORTS
 
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Byline: Bill DOYLE

COLUMN: TUNING IN

College basketball has its voice back.

Or at least its loudest voice, even if it is a bit raspier than usual.

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale returned to the air last night to analyze Duke at North Carolina. The sportscasting icon hadn't worked a game since Dec. 4 and underwent surgery two weeks later to remove ulcers from his left vocal cord. Until then, he hadn't missed a broadcast since he joined ESPN 29 years ago.

"There was a moment there," the 68-year-old Vitale said, "when I never thought I'd be behind the microphone again."

Vitale's voice always had been raspy, but it became hoarse over the past two or three years. A handful of throat specialists assured him he suffered only from acid reflux, a vocal cord condition that could be treated with Maalox. But the hoarseness persisted and his throat became sore.

"Every game, I was a worried, nervous wreck," Vitale said, "as to what was coming out of my throat because my throat was really a problem. It was really, really bothering me big-time."

Finally, his doctor in Florida got him an appointment with Dr. Steven Zeitels, a noted throat specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who had operated on Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and singer Julie Andrews. Vitale now calls Dr. Zeitels the Tom Brady of throat specialists. Dr. Zeitels agreed that Vitale suffered from acid reflux, but also found ulcerated lesions on his left vocal cord. Dr. Zeitels put it to Vitale bluntly - the lesions had to be removed surgically and they could be cancerous.

"That word just scares the life out of anyone," Vitale said.

Ironically, the last game Vitale worked before his surgery was in the Jimmy V Basketball Classic, named after his good friend, Jimmy Valvano, who died of cancer. Vitale had to wait two long weeks for the results of the biopsy. Finally, he learned he did not have cancer. But still, he wasn't sure when he'd be able to talk again.

For 3-1/2 weeks, Vitale communicated by writing on a grease board. His wife told a reporter that he wrote the same way he talked - scribbling as fast as he could. He updated his ESPN blog daily in longhand and Lorraine read it to ESPN.

"I went through so many pens, it was unbelievable - pads and notes," he said.

Meanwhile, mail, gift baskets and messages flowed in from fans and friends. Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight, Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino and Gary Williams were among the coaches who wished him well.

Soon, losing his voice wasn't...

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