It was the least-likely way I ever expected to meet a legend, yet somehow, it still happened.
I was off to Costco on a stock-up run, and to see what else I could find that I probably could live without, but at that price, how do I say ‘no’? It’s why they say that the most expensive vehicle to operate these days is a shopping cart at Costco.
I had just entered the store with my cart, my mind trying to recall all the things I so vividly thought of while I was at home, when I noticed an older gentleman sitting at a table near the books. Curiosity got the best of me, so I went over to see who it was.
It was Bill Friggin’ Russell.
Yes, the Boston Celtics legend that broke my Los Angeles Lakers heart on multiple occasions during my childhood years. Yet, here was this Hall of Fame basketball legend in the middle of a Costco, with no one in line, no one talking to him, just sitting there. It was like someone was setting a trap for me.
As I walked up to him, I kept thinking a door on the floor would open and I would be taken prisoner. But no, Mr. Russell just looked up, smiled and said, “Hi, how you doing?”
I did what any other red-blooded sports fan would do in this situation. I started blubbering about how nice it was to meet him, how great he was and yes, I’d like a couple of books. He asked who he should sign them to, and I think I either asked him for one for me or my son, but definitely I had to have him sign one for dad, who witnessed all those Lakers defeats with me. And besides, this was Bill Friggin’ Russell.
I thanked him and wandered away, stunned that I had just met him in a Costco book department. However, it was not surprising once you realize that Bill chose to retire in our area and had a nice place on Mercer Island, just east of Seattle, on Lake Washington. He was fairly active in the community, once even lending his voice to a Seattle Children’s Theater production.
The book was a great collection of stories of how it used to be, his fondness for his coach, and other stories from the times, that were not good. I’ll let you read all that stuff for yourself. But just the mention of his coach’s name, Red Auerbach, knocked loose one of those little memory nuggets tucked away in my brain. Back in the 1960s, the N.B.A. was a world away from today’s version. I’m not making this up–Bill played for the Boston Celtics and his coach had this tradition, which I witnessed many times on those nationally televised games. Whenever the Celtics had a big enough lead and a win was secured, Coach Auerbach’s tradition was to light up a victory cigar. Yep, there was the coach, with a big smile on his face, smoking his stogie on the sidelines as he watched the final minutes of a game roll off.
Of course, today, the coach would have had to leave the game and stand at least 25-feet away from any entrance. Not as effective.
Here’s the book he autographed for me.
As you can see, he really wanted people to know about this special relationship with Auerbach. After reading the book and seeing how Red stood up for Bill on multiple occasions during those extremely racist 1960s, it made all those Laker losses a little easier to take.
The praises continue to pour in about Bill and his life, and the more you learn about him, the more you realize what an amazing person he was.
And, to think, I got to meet him, at Costco.