CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -Dick Vitale's first ``Welcome Back'' came well before the start of the Duke-North Carolina game.
College basketball's signature analyst-ambassador arrived at the Smith Center on Wednesday about five hours before he was to return to the air after two months away while he underwent and recovered from throat surgery.
And Vitale couldn't believe the reception he received.
As he turned the corner toward the media entrance, Vitale was suddenly in the middle of the North Carolina students already in line to get the prime seats for the game against their archrival.
``Dickie V. Dickie V.''
The students, who have been known for changing his nickname to ``Dukie V.'' on occasion because of some perceptions that he favors the ``other'' school in the rivalry, were genuinely excited to see the man who coined so many phrases that have become part of the lexicon of college basketball.
``Get a T-O, baby.''
``You're a P-T-Per.''
``Shoot the rock.''
The more the students cheered and chanted, the closer Vitale got to crying and eventually the tears streamed down his face. And tipoff for the ESPN telecast between No. 2 Duke and No. 3 North Carolina was still hours away.
``This is unbelievable. It's been like this since Dec. 5 when I found out about the lesions in my throat,'' said Vitale, a man who admits he's emotional most of the time anyway. ``The phone calls, the notes and letters, the gift baskets. How lucky can a man be? On Dec. 5 I never thought I'd be here again.''
It's hard to imagine college basketball without Vitale. His coaching career never brought him this kind of attention. His broadcasting career started in 1979 and he's been with ESPN ever since.
Hardly a broadcast journalism example for diction and decorum, Vitale has left his feelings out there for almost three decades and the last two months let him know his unique style was appreciated and missed.
At 5:20, Vitale had to tape an interview that would be played during SportsCenter. When the red light went on he was answering with enthusiasm and his voice was echoing around an empty Smith Center.
The cameramen and technicians were sitting in the first few rows of the lower level and as Vitale's voice started booming, the smiles and nods started. Dickie V. was back.
he course level screamed ``Dickie V.'' and started bowing from the waist with his arms extended.
One of the hardest parts of his first day back was that Vitale couldn't accommodate local TV radio stations for brief pregame interviews, a staple of his pre-surgery days.
``I feel so bad I can't talk to them all but it's doctor's order,'' he said.
Every turndown, instead of being greeted with a head shake or a grumble, was met with a handshake and a welcome.
``I feel like I'm 12 years old again. When you're laying in a hospital bed you feel 68,'' he said using his age. ``I want to be 12.''
Vitale bumped into Tim Brando, who was doing the play-by-play for Raycom, which was also broadcasting the game. After a hug and some small talk, Brando told Vitale about a concoction he used to help his voice during games after nodules were found on his vocal chords five years ago.
``You take ginger root and slice it like a potato, mix it with warm water and ... ,'' was all Brando, who did his first game for ESPN with Vitale next to him in January 1985, got out.
``Please tell that to Lorraine,'' Vitale said referring to his wife. ``I can't remember all that.''
When he sat eating his pregame meal and drinking plenty of water (another doctor's order that left him worrying about where the closest men's room was from the midcourt broadcast position), Vitale admitted the last time was this anxious before a game was when he was coaching at the University of Detroit.
``We had won 20 straight and were playing Marquette in Milwaukee and needed to win the game to make sure we got an invitation to the NCAA tournament that at that time was just 32 teams,'' he said. ``This is my Super Bowl. This is a very special moment in my career and my life.''

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