Elgin, Artis, Bill, Doctor J: Hoop royalty
“Don’t look now, Pete. Dr. J.”
Sure enough, there he was, Julius Erving, not 10 feet from us, chatting amiably with friends, dignified, impeccable, with his closely shorn grey hair now turning white, no evidence of the flamboyant trademark Afro of his playing days.
This was a big deal. Dr. J!
My son Peter, 16, had read about Julius Erving, rival of Larry Bird and the Celtics and one of basketball’s all-time greats. He had seen him in video clips swooping and dunking with his massive hands and marvelous athleticism. Here he was, right here, in our circle.
So Peter approached him, and waited politely for a break in the conversation, then shook Dr. J’s hand and mumbled his appreciation. Next to Dr. J was Artis Gilmore, all 7 foot 2 inches of him, and Peter’s hand was soon enveloped in his as well.
We had decided earlier on this evening that we would leave the camera in our motel. In the event we encountered basketball greatness, we would follow Bill Russell’s approach:
Russell, in his playing and coaching days, usually declined to provide autographs when asked. Instead he would say, “but I’ll shake your hand, or we can have a conversation.”
We shook a lot of hands — and had conversations with some of the greatest players in the history of basketball.
We were in Springfield, Mass., for the annual enshrinement activities of the Basketball Hall of Fame: the Reunion Dinner on Thursday night, Aug. 11, and the induction ceremonies the next night at Symphony Hall.
Our specific motivation this year was to observe Cornwall townsman Alex Wolff receive the prestigious Curt Gowdy Award for excellence in journalism at the Thursday dinner.
He was being celebrated for his three decades of ace sports writing for “Sports Illustrated,” the pre-eminent sports periodical in the country, his five books on basketball, and his recent foray into team ownership with the Vermont Frost Heaves.
Alex’s book, “Big Game, Small World,” on the global reach of basketball is really a work of cultural anthropology and is as good a sports book as you can read. In his crisp five-minute acceptance speech, Alex even found a way to include a reference to his hometown newspaper, the Addison County Independent.
Alex and Vanessa sat at a table with legendary coaches Hubie Brown and Dr. (Ph.D.) Jack Ramsey. At the table immediately adjacent to Peter’s and mine at the Reunion Dinner was Elgin Baylor of the great Laker teams with Jerry West in the ’60s, still looking fit enough to play at 77.
At the table on the other side of us, Hall of Famers Rick Barry, Calvin Murphy and Walt Bellamy dined.
At the reception before the Reunion Dinner we were able to hobnob with basketball legends. We had conversations with Jack McCallum of “Sports Illustrated” and the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan, whose wife Elaine told us their daughter-in-law attended Middlebury College.
Journalist Jackie MacMullan described some of her adventures writing a book with Shaquille O’Neal, due out in November. These days my heroes are likely to be the writers who chronicle the game as much as the players.
I introduced myself to enshrinee Tara VanDerveer (802 wins/197 losses), the coach of women’s basketball at Stanford and also the women’s Olympic Gold Medal team in 1996. We talked about her high school years in Buffalo, N.Y., at the Buffalo Seminary, where my ex-wife Jody is now the school head.
Small world (big game).
Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn were there with us to help celebrate their Celtics teammate from the ’60s, Tom “Satch” Sanders. I shook hands with Dolph Shayes, now 83, a hero from the NBA’s early days.
Peter got some time with Bill Walton, there to “present” at the enshrinement ceremonies the great Lithuanian center, Arvidis Sabonis, whose fame was compromised by Cold War prohibitions on his play in this country.
“Imagine a 7-foot-4 Larry Bird. That was Sabonis,” observed longtime NBA coach Rick Adelman. We met many imposing and impressive men, none more so than Arvidis.
The enshrinement the next night was attended by wonderful hoopla. The event itself, televised live, was preceded by an hour of red carpet entrances.
The exuberant Charles Barkley was there to “present” five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards. Scottie Pippen arrived to celebrate the induction of his teammate Dennis “The Worm” Rodman. Phil Jackson, too.
No hand shakes this time, just gawking on the rope line with others.
Rodman, naturally, was the center of attention, arriving at this black tie event in a wide-brimmed hat with a long feather, and a feather boa around his neck extending down his long frame. His acceptance speech was surprisingly humble, if otherwise incomprehensible.
When it was all said and done, and we were driving back to Vermont, I asked Peter if he had had a good time. He told me that he was actually disappointed: “Dad. No Larry Bird. No Michael Jordan.” He was kidding.
As we say in Vermont, the whole thing was, for both of us, not bad.
Not bad at all.