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At 75, Dick Vitale energetic as ever as March Madness arrives

Actress Ashley Judd, left, and broadcaster Dick Vitale,

Actress Ashley Judd, left, and broadcaster Dick Vitale, center look at a phone before the first half of the NCAA college basketball Southeastern Conference tournament championship game between Kentucky and Arkansas, Sunday, March 15, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: AP / Steve Helber

The interview was almost over Wednesday afternoon when Dick Vitale noticed something was missing.

"I can't believe you're the first guy who didn't ask me about the kiss from Ashley Judd!" the ESPN analyst said.

Well, OK . . .

"That was amazing," he said of the kiss on the lips from the actress / Kentucky fan before the SEC championship game that became a social media sensation last Sunday. "She ran from the stands and planted a smooch on me. I am not going to run from it, that's for sure."

Still, Vitale was troubled by suggestions that there was anything inappropriate about the exchange.

"She's a beautiful lady," he said of Judd. "We've had a friendship for over a decade. She said on NBC she adores me. Her quote was, 'I adore him. He's like an uncle to me.' People tried to make a big thing of it. It was nothing."

Vitale did say, though, that he is rooting for Kentucky to win the NCAA Tournament because he heard Judd promised publicly to plant another one on him if the Wildcats win it all.

"I'm 75; I'm harmless," Vitale said. "When I was younger, nobody wanted to get near me."

Speaking of Vitale being 75, ESPN has made it clear this season that as valued as he still is, he no longer is their lead analyst.

That distinction goes to Jay Bilas, who worked the Saturday night prime time games this season, was the lone analyst for the two Duke-North Carolina games and even co-hosted "SportsCenter" on Selection Sunday.

Vitale publicly expressed his disappointment via Twitter before and during the first Duke-Carolina game, but on Wednesday, he said he understands and accepts what ESPN is doing.

"Listen, my career is probably at the highest it's ever been," he said, "I've got great games to do. Jay does a terrific job. I understand what ESPN has done. The clock beats all of us. I'm 75 years old. I can't hide the number. I'm going to be 76 on June 9.

"If you would have told me when I was 55 that I would still be working at 75, I'd say you're crazy. I was dreaming at 60 years old of relaxing and being with my grandkids. But I feel so good. I don't know what happens tomorrow. I could have a heart attack today and be gone tomorrow. But I know today I feel phenomenal.

"People blew that so out of proportion. Was I hurt? Yes, I was hurt when it happened. But the one game that really hurt me was the Duke-Carolina game because I've been a fixture for 35 years. The regular-season games, I did every one of them, and I wanted the streak to continue.

"I wanted not for Jay to be taken off the game, I wanted to be part of it like we were for the last four or five years, Jay, myself and Dan [Shulman]. But they've given me a great schedule. They've given me a raise. They've extended my contract. They've told me I have a job for life. What more can they do? They have given me so much.

"Without them there'd be no Dickie V., there'd be no Hall of Fame - I'm in 12 Hall of Fames. I've lived a life I'm going to celebrate. I've exceeded any dream. I'm doing commercials with Oberto [beef jerky] and a number of others and marketing programs and speaking engagements.

"How can I possibly complain with people out there starving, looking for jobs? I don't feel I've been demoted. I don't feel it at all. I feel it's a promotion, the fact I can work beyond 65. I really mean that. It's an unbelievable compliment that I'm able to work. People want me to scream and yell. I can't do that. I don't feel that. I think it's a joy that I've been able to continue to work at my age.

"I was excited the other day doing Kentucky games. I mean, is that a demotion, sitting courtside for Kentucky, No. 1 in the country, finals of the SEC? Is that a demotion being on for Selection Sunday? Is that a demotion that I'm going to do cut-ins starting [Thursday] my house?

"SportsCenter in the morning, SportsCenter at 6 o'clock, SportsCenter at 11 o'clock? What more can they do for me? I can understand putting Jay where they put Jay. Jay is very good at what does. Dan is very good at what he does. And they're the future, man. The numbers don't lie. They're young. I'm up there in years.

"But I will match my energy with any 25-year-old, man. Bring 'em on! Bring 'em on!"

Advertisers don't seem to consider Vitale old news. He regularly pops up at this time of year hawking goods and services. The interview Wednesday was set up by the folks at Oberto, for whom Vitale has a commercial in heavy rotation that co-stars ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith.

Oberto also is conducting a contest in which fans can submit a 15-second video of a Vitale imitation. What is the best Dickie V. imitation he ever has heard?

"Sunday, from my (play-by-play) man Brad Nessler," he said. "Brad Nessler, he sounds better than I do, man. He could have made a career of it. Brad Nessler is terrific. You should hear him when he goes on a Dickie V. impression. It's really special."

Of course, Nessler is far from the only one.

"I get it every day, no matter where I am," Vitale said. "I don't think a day goes by in my life anymore, when I go to [baseball] spring training I have players yelling out to me, 'Give me a T.O., baby! Give me a T.O.!' Or, 'He's awesome, baby!'

"You know what's really interesting? If you listen to a telecast, tell me the number of times I say, 'awesome, baby.' Very rarely. But they caught on and they've become part of the lexicon of college basketball. If I stop at a playground where a bunch of kids are playing and I just pull the car over and I go in there, it's hysterical, man."

Vitale said of his work as a pitchman: "I love being with people. I'm enjoying the moment. It's great financially as well. It's fun products, and it's all related to March Madness and the growth of March Madness."

The demand for his services "just blows me away . . . It's unbelievable, more than I've ever, ever had."

He said his boundless energy enables him to juggle everything.

"I've got to tell you: I don't know I'm 75," he said. "I swear to you, I feel like a 25-year-old. I played tennis this morning, singles. I keep in great shape. I work out. It's just a number to me. I feel better than I've ever felt."

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