To the audience attending tonight's lecture in Lee Arena, the name Dick Vitale may mean an array of different things. To WSGA president Caley Onek, the name reminds her of one of the biggest inspirations in her life: Don Oliver.
Oliver and his wife Mary loved basketball. In fact, they loved basketball so much they attended 23 consecutive Final Fours together. Their daughter, Cammy, played basketball in high school and college—eventually becoming a coach—before marrying a man named Chad Onek. Naturally, her three children—Caley, Chayne and Coby Onek—also went on to play ball at Flinthills High School, becoming the third generation of basketball players within the Lyon County League in eastern Kansas.
"My family's been a basketball family for years and years and years and my grandpa was the biggest basketball fan in the world," said Onek. "He loved his basketball. They used to go to basketball games all over the place and he was always a really big Dick Vitale fan. He didn't always agree with him, but he definitely liked hearing his feedback and what he thought about the games and who was going to win."
Essentially, basketball was life to Don. Aside from attending his family's events, as family always came first, this one sport captivated his attention like nothing else. And while it seemed as though nothing could come between him and the game he loved, something finally did. In 2006, Don and Mary Oliver skipped their annual Final Four trip after finding out Don had developed lung cancer. That August, the 70-year-old man died from a blood clot in his heart while attending a basketball game with Mary.
"He ended up passing away when I was in high school and it was really tough on my family, it was really tough on me," said Onek. "My grandpa was just an amazing person and just led a great life and definitely left a legacy."
When a man's life has been centered around basketball, it only makes sense to carry out his funeral in similar fashion. At least, that was Mary Oliver's point-of-view on the subject.
"He was such a basketball fan that, at his funeral, my grandma was really wanting to make sure it was what he would have wanted," said Onek. "One of the big things was that grandma wanted it to be Final Four-related because they went to so many Final Fours."
And so it was. The room was set with two ladders full of Final Four hats collected by the couple throughout the years. Final Four mugs were set out on each table, and the bouquet was decorated with University of Kansas basketball jerseys and small basketball ornaments. However, Mary was ready to pull out all the stops for her husband.
"The big deal was that he was cremated," said Onek. "When you get cremated, a lot of people put it in like a vase or something and my grandma told them she wanted him cremated in a basketball. They were like ‘Ma'am, that's just not done, we can't do that,' and she was like ‘No, Don will get cremated in a basketball.'"
The basketball, which was signed by several KU players, was given to Don as a birthday present from his grandchildren. A hole was cut in it, and his ashes—safe within a plastic bag—were placed inside the ball. The ball was then sewn shut.
"It's what grandma wanted," said Onek, with a smile.
The Newspaper Article
After Don's funeral, Onek realized she wanted to do something in remembrance of him. She formulated a plot to meet up with somebody from ESPN and tell him or her about her grandfather's story. The only question was who?
"After a long time, I realized that it was Dick Vitale I wanted to get ahold of, because my grandpa was a huge fan of his and I knew that Dick Vitale could really relate to dealing with cancer loss," said Onek.
Vitale, an advocate for cancer research and the work of the Jimmy V. Foundation and Coaches vs. Cancer, was also her grandfather's favorite analyst. The plan was perfect. However, Onek quickly learned that getting in contact with a celebrity is not as easy as it seems.
"I ended up trying all different kinds of ways to get ahold of him and I was just very unsuccessful—failed attempt after failed attempt," said Onek. "I finally reached a newspaper writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which is where Dick Vitale is from. The man from there was a really nice guy and he ended up really liking my story about my grandpa, so when he found out I was trying to get ahold of Dick Vitale, he not only gave me his cell phone number, but also asked if he could write a story about my family."
So the writer, Doug Fernandes, wrote a story about Onek and her grandfather. He told about the roadtrips and the funeral. He told about Oliver's admiration for Dick Vitale. Onek had yet to tell her grandmother about the story, although she had attempted to call Vitale. The reception was bad, and the conversation was cut off. However, Fernandes' story made it to the eyes of someone important—eyes that had seen more basketball than even Don Oliver.
Meeting Dick Vitale
A few weeks later, Onek was on the beach with a few friends, when she received a phone call that would change her life. Dick Vitale was on the other line, and he was wondering if Caley and her mother and grandmother would be interested in attending the Rock Basketball Party with him in Atlanta during the Final Four. He wanted them to be his guests of honor. Caley said yes.
"When I first met him, I couldn't believe it was happening," said Onek. "He walked in and there were people taking pictures all over and they kind of pulled us over to him and he just took us up in a big hug. Right away, he gave us attention and was just very, very nice to us. He wanted me to meet his wife and wanted my grandma and everyone to meet his sports agent. He kept making it very focused on us and he was very, very kind. My grandma was shaking, my mom was shaking, we were like ‘Is this really happening?'"
During the party, Vitale gave a speech, which Onek said was very inspirational. During that speech, he mentioned her grandpa and his struggle with cancer, something Onek said was "very cool" for her grandmother.
"My grandpa was a fighter, but sometimes the Lord just has different plans for us," said Onek. "Grandpa ended up going to Heaven, but definitely when he was here was just a big basketball nut and Mr. Vitale did a very nice job of talking about him. He treated us like family when we were with him."
Dick Vitale Comes to Washburn
Flash forward three years. It's April 28, 2010, and Dick Vitale will be arriving in Topeka very soon. So what happened in-between then and now to where one of the most widely known basketball analysts in the world is coming to Washburn University? Well, it's all about who you know.
"When I was first thinking about having him as a speaker, I didn't want it to be a personal thing," said Onek. "I wanted it to be something because it was for the good of Washburn. I'd listened to him speak, he's a really big name, so if we could bring him to Washburn that'd be really good because it'd put us on the news."
Garrett Love, former WSGA president, agreed. Love said he considered Vitale near the top of the list when planning for the spring lecturer, and something about having a world-renowned celebrity on Washburn's campus seemed like a good idea.
"I've known [Caley] the past couple years and it's obviously a really cool story," said Love. "She showed me the article and told me about what happened."
After hearing about the story, Love thought Onek's connection to Vitale was too good an opportunity to pass up for Washburn. Love and Onek contacted Vitale, and the three discussed ways to make a lecture by Vitale possible on the WSGA's budget. In the end, Vitale agreed to a $30,000 paycheck, plus transportation, a far cry from the usual $50,000 he receives to speak. To make matters better for the student government association, WSGA is only spending $7,000 out of pocket, as they used Vitale's big name to raise funds and acquire donors, sponsors and money from other student organizations.
"He definitely worked with us, because he wanted to help make this event possible, and having Caley be a part of it was obviously essential to it even being possible," said Love. "He definitely gave us a deal and wanted to do what he could to make this event happen and also to make it a success."
Marsha Carrasco Cooper, director of SAGL and adviser to the Dick Vitale Comes to Washburn Committee, agreed with Love's sentiments that Vitale went out of his way to make the event possible.
"He worked really well with us," said Carrasco Cooper. "He was pretty clear at the beginning with his agents that he wanted to make this work."
Carrasco Cooper, who advises WSGA as part of her job as SAGL director, only recently heard about Onek's connection to Dick Vitale, saying it wasn't until they were almost ready to announce he was coming before she heard the story from Onek.
"First, I was surprised she hadn't shared that, but I think that's just a testament to how humble Caley is and how she doesn't like anything to be about her," said Carrasco Cooper. "She's really excited about the opportunity that this presents to all of Washburn and I think that's just a testament to how cool she is that she stepped out of that. She's already had her experience with Dick Vitale."
Carrasco Cooper said learning about Onek's connection with Vitale made her even more excited about the event, because it's "clear he values people and his fans and their families and what they go through."
"The story is incredibly touching," said Carrasco Cooper. "I always knew Caley liked NCAA basketball, but I never knew why. Knowing she's got such a strong connection to her now-late grandfather and late grandmother, and how they went to Final Fours for so many years in a row, it was just a special story."
Carrasco Cooper said bringing Vitale to Washburn was a good choice, because of his name recognition amongst students and community members. She said even if you can't pinpoint exactly who he is, you know you're supposed to know who he is.
"I think it's good because it's gotten students excited," said Carrasco Cooper. "Really, everything we do should provide a good experience for students. We've done several surveys over the years about ‘What do you want to see Washburn bring?' and without exception students always say ‘We want a known name.' With our budget, that's a really difficult thing to accomplish a lot of the time, but WSGA has done a great job of working with the Endowment Association to raise money. They've also committed quite a bit of their money to make that a reality."
In the end, however, it all came down to the bond that was created between a small-town girl from El Dorado, Kan., and a college basketball analyst from Sarasota, Fla.—courtesy of grandpa Don.
"He called the [WSGA] office when we were first trying to set up the event and said ‘Caley, I remember you, I remember your grandmother and mother and I would definitely love to come speak at Washburn,' so that was phenomenal," said Onek. "A lot of times you have to go through the agent and you never get to actually have direct communication with the person, but to have him, as big as he is, call my office phone and leave me a voice mail, that was really saying something. That was cool."