Nearly four decades ago, it was more of a novelty for the average sports fan to run into their heroes in public, certainly nothing like today when the dramatic escalation of autograph values has made a big business out of something once reserved for genuine fanatics.
In 1970, I spotted Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge walking along Market Street in San Francisco, and I sort off stalked them for a few blocks without ever pestering them for an autograph or anything else. I was in my Navy uniform, which I mention merely by way of explaining why I was in San Francisco.
I was a huge Robertson fan, having followed him even since his final days in college, and he was the first hall of famer from any sport that I ever encountered – such as it was – in person. I would have recognized “The Big O” easily anywhere, but it didn’t hurt that the two NBA stars were decked out in duds whose price tag I suspect exceeded my entire net worth at that moment.
Fast forward a dozen years to Buffalo, N.Y., where Robertson was the featured speaker to open the Empire State Games that year. Games Director Mike Abernethy knew that I was a big Robertson fan, so he asked me if I wanted to pick him up at the hotel and bring him to the Games’ headquarters before the opening ceremonies. It was a rhetorical question.
I was thrilled to have that opportunity, but in the frantic hours leading up to the 2 p.m. appointment, lots of things went haywire at the press center, which was my responsibility as PR coordinator. Pulled in every direction by reporters, staffers and volunteers, I was running around frantically when I happened to notice the time. It was 2:25 p.m!
I typically disdain exclamation points, but it’s appropriate here. I was distraught, thinking that I had bungled such an important task and quite possibly pissed off the most important dignitary at that year’s Games. I raced over to his hotel not far from the University of Buffalo-Amherst campus where we held the opening ceremonies and most of the competition.
There he was standing out front, looking now even more distinguished, possibly now several C-Notes or more on the hoof, adjusted for more than a decade’s worth of inflation (which we had a lot of in the 1970s).
He jumped into the New York State government vehicle and listened patiently while I apologized as profusely and abjectly as I ever have for anything in my life. He waved all of it away, telling me not to worry about it.
Though it wouldn’t have seemed possible, I became an even bigger Oscar Robertson fan after that one.
And I never asked him for an autograph!