Touching the Hand of Basketball Jesus--the whole story

UPDATE: This story (a link to it, anyway) was posted on a national NBA site, Truehoop, on ESPN.com. Check it out here. Thank you, Henry Abbott!
Yes, this is long. So take a few minutes and soak it in. Share it with your Dad.

Throughout history, kids have struggled with the question of what present to get for Dad, the man who has everything. Too often, whether the answer ends up being cologne, socks, or neckties, few presents ever leave their mark. With Christmas 2008 approaching, a simple idea for a present evolved into an incredibly unique experience that my Dad will never forget.

My idea for Dad, a lifelong basketball junkie, was to find a date in December or January when we could make the manageable, four-hour, NBA road trip from St. Louis to either Memphis, Tennessee for a Grizzlies game, or head north to Indianapolis, Indiana, to watch the Pacers in action. The opponent was not important, as long as the game was not on a Friday or Saturday night that would conflict with any St. Louis parties needing me to DJ. The idea was for Dad and me to have a fun time together, take a short trip and watch some basketball that we do not have access to in St. Louis.

The first indication that I was on to something good came when I checked the NBA schedule. On Sunday evening, December 7th, the Pacers would be hosting none other than the 17-time, reigning World Champion, not to mention my Dad’s favorite, Boston Celtics! Coincidentally, Dad’s favorite player ever is Larry Bird, the “Basketball Jesus,” now serving as president of the Indiana Pacers. So, let’s review: Dad’s favorite team, with his favorite player in the same building, and we only would have to take Monday off. It was a no-brainer. I threw it out to my two sisters and brother Mark, but only my brother ended up able to do it, making it a very appealing road trip for the Fingerhut boys.

Here’s where things got exciting. Mark and I, with Dad’s input, decided to splurge a little and get lower level seats facing the team benches. Once I secured three tickets, the next idea was hatched. Why not try to take this experience to the next level? I had read a book recently that talked about how meeting celebrities was easier than people thought, and I knew that once I set a clear objective to achieve, all I had to was ask. So, what was the objective? I pictured My Dad meeting Larry Bird. Nothing could top that! Then I worked my way backward, pondering what would be the most effective way to arrange this.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I let the idea round into form, and went into attack mode the week leading up to the game. Neither the Pacers’ nor Celtics’ web site offered much opportunity for communication; most avenues led to ticket sales. On Monday, I rooted around and sent this email to a general email address for the Pacers:

To Whom It May Concern:
You probably see this type of letter all the time, so I will understand if I get a response along the lines of a courteous apology. Even so, I have a question that I hope someone can forward to the right people.

My brother and I are taking my Dad to a Pacers game for his Christmas present. We have tickets to this Sunday's game against the Boston Celtics at 6 p.m. That scenario in itself, is not so unique, except this will not be a piece of cake for us. My Dad and Mom raised four of us kids in St. Louis, MO. Besides the "religion" of Cardinal baseball that we were baptised into as fans, Dad, a lifelong St. Louisan as well as lifelong NBA fan, raised us on Celtics basketball.

In the glorious '80s, Dad would sing the praises of Larry Bird and point out all the intricacies of the great Celtics teams and the Big Three. His love of Red Auerbach and all things 'Celtic-green' fueled his passion for coaching us in basketball and pushing all of us to strive for our best, always, like Red, Larry, and the Celtics. When Larry Bird came to the Pacers, first as coach, then as president, the Pacers became our 'second team' behind the Celtics, and we happily cheered on Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Jermaine O'Neal, and everyone else over the years. Even as my brother and I lived in Japan teaching English for a few years, including the rough experience of Dad's heart attack, we could always connect talking NBA basketball, and the Pacers and Celtics always had lots to talk about.

Last year, as the Celtics made their big run to the title, my brother and I re-connected with Dad in a big way. While Larry and the Pacers were unfortunately not involved in the playoffs, the three of us watched most of the Celtics' playoff games together in the same room, with Dad making the effort of staying up for the end of the games--because we were there, and the Celtics were back.

We have been to a few NBA games in our lives, both in Indianapolis and Memphis, but they could be counted on one hand. Dad's getting older, and I don't know how many more times we'll be able to give him a present like this. The timing could not be better, with the Celtics coming to Larry Bird's organization, with the Celtics defending their championship, and the Pacers fielding a promising young team. All three of us are extremely excited about coming up to Conseco Fieldhouse this weekend. We are planning to get there early to watch players warming up, although it seems the earliest we can enter is 5 p.m. for the 6 p.m. game.

My question is, since Sunday will not be the second game of a back-to-back, is there a chance at all that we could have one second of Mr. Bird's time, just to say hello and give a handshake? Like I said, I am sure you all get this request a lot, and I have no doubt Mr. Bird will be busy on game day. But I wanted to ask, as a fan and as the son of a HUGE fan. My brother and I have saved up, and are splurging on club seats, to get my Dad as close as possible to the action. He does not know I am sending this, and I would love to surprise him.

Once again, I don't know who this goes to, but could you forward it on to the right person or people? Please don't hesitate to contact me at any time. Thank you, and either way, I hope this Pacers' season is a successful one!!!

Sincerely,
Joe A. Fingerhut


As you can see, I put a lot of time and thought into what exactly to include in here, keeping it concise but laying everything out. Key ideas: St. Louis fans, coming a long way, Dad’s a fan, Larry’s old team, throwing in the heart attack issue, brothers saving up and splurging, with a healthy amount of courtesy focusing on making it convenient for them.

Nothing came of this letter. On Wednesday, I got back on the Pacers site, and somehow saw a fax number I had not seen before. I hand-wrote a one-page letter, hitting most of the points above, but also including a sentence including, “(my Dad) has some heart problems, and may not get an opportunity like this again.” Not a lie, technically, just boosting the urgency.

Nothing came of this fax, either. While I was somewhat let down, nothing could change the fact that the three of us were in for a fun road trip, a nice NBA matchup, and a great experience regardless.

Then, Friday morning, two days before the game, right around 10:30 a.m., my cell phone rang. While I did not recognize this out-of-state number, I thought little of it and picked it up. Here’s how the conversation went between me and . . .

Me: Hello, this is Joe.
Voice: Hi Joe, this is Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers.
Me: (Silence--breathless, out of breath, unable to speak, not thinking. . .)
Voice: Hello?
Me: YES! I am here, hi! Are you serious?
Voice: Yeah, this is Larry Bird. I understand you and your Dad are coming to the game this Sunday.
Me: (stuttering, desparately trying not to sound ridiculous) Yes, that’s right, we’re looking forward to it.
LARRY FREAKING BIRD: Is your Dad around?
Me: No he’s at work, this is my phone. Do you want his number?
LFB: Yeah, does it start with 314?
Me: 314-***-****, he works for the United States Postal Service.
LFB: Okay. I’m going to the airport Sunday and won’t get there until game time, but if you can get down to me, I’d be happy to meet you.
Me: Thank you, thanks for calling, see you Sunday.

I talked to this man on the phone. Then he called my Dad.

I did a little triumphant freak-out, decided against calling my Dad to warn him for fear of any phone line gaffes, then ran upstairs to tell my wife. “Guess who just called? LARRY BIRD!!!”

My wife Michiyo, born in Japan and delightfully indifferent to most things sports-related, meekly responded, “Who?”

I had explained the situation earlier, and I told her, “Papa Joe’s favorite player called,” and she was excited for me and us. I called my siblings, but no one picked up. So I waited, eagerly.

Five minutes later, my phone rang again.

Me: Hello, this is Joe.
Voice: (No words, just a gasp, and the sound of someone about to laugh)
Me: Hi Dad. Did you like that?
Me & Papa Joe: (laughing like giddy school girls that just saw Justin Timberlake’s new video.)

Dad and I spent the next few minutes of the United States Postal Service’s time going over every syllable of the last 10 minutes of our lives. Dad was convinced it was a trick, but “didn’t say anything funny,” then when he got a chance, asked, “Is this real?” Larry Freaking Bird said, “Oh yeah, this is Larry Bird.” Dad described himself as “in la-la land” after that, but got himself together enough to get Larry to say meet him around halftime or after the game.

To say the least, Dad was pleasantly surprised and shocked. He could not believe his work phone had rung, with Larry Bird on the other end. Then he could not believe that I had used the reason of “heart problems” to goad a professional basketball organization into action. Dad said he could not wait to tell the guys at lunch, said goodbye, and then I had a similar conversation with my brother Mark, complete with cackling and giddiness, only on a different company’s time.

Over the next two days, we told EVERYONE who would listen all about what happened. We had plenty of family and friends intrigued with how it would turn out. Lots of people were on board, and then, a co-worker of my Dad’s called us on the car ride up to Indy on Sunday, letting us know that, unbelievably, that day, December 7th, was the 52nd birthday of one Larry Joe Bird. We had all ready spent much of the ride speculating and joking about what would happen later on, ranging from a police escort out of the city, to sharing drinks at a downtown club after the game on Larry’s dime. News that it was his birthday kicked these possibilities up several notches, and took our conversations in even more imaginative directions. The four-hour drive flew by.

We checked in to our room exactly one block from Conseco Fieldhouse (Mark did all Fingerhuts everywhere proud by scoring a Hampton Inn with FREE breakfast), grabbed a quick sandwich and headed to the arena.
With about 20 minutes to tip-off, we simply sat down and took in the atmosphere—not quite electric, but buzzing, with the reigning champs warming up and fans steadily filling up the seats.
Mark and Dad

I made it a point to just focus on Ray Allen, watching him practice the give-and-go with Rajon Rondo, and appreciating his picture-perfect jumper in the house that Reggie Miller built.

My Dad and Me

12/7/08: Indiana Pacers versus NBA Champion Boston Celtics
video
Celtics Starting Lineup introduced
After a lights-out, fired up introduction of the starting lineups, the game began, and to our thorough delight, both teams came out firing. The Pacers were playing their fourth game in five days, and while the middle two games had been disappointing, blowout losses, they had taken the mighty Lakers to overtime in the first game, winning with a desperate, one-handed tip-in at the buzzer from Troy Murphy. On this Sunday night against the Celtics, they were in fighting mode. The defending champions had won 11 games in a row, and showed no signs of complacency. The first quarter ended with a buzzer-beater from Celtics benchwarmer and Irish super-hero Brian Scalabrine, and the second quarter ended not with a Ray Allen three with four seconds left, but with a HALF-COURT Three from the Pacers’ Marquis Daniels as time expired.

Throughout the first half, we watched Larry Legend like a hawk. Dad pointed out that sitting among the fans was a habit made famous by the Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. As a front office man, Larry has always taken a corner seat near the visitor bench. With binoculars, we observed that a complete team security team insulated Mr. Bird from any nagging fans; one older gentleman guarded the aisle seat of Larry’s two-seat row, while four or five men firmly hovered on the floor a few feet below the railing separating him from the players’ tunnel. He was accessible to fans, however: during every timeout, fans could and would line up to hand their hero a ticket stub for him to sign. Larry would reach down with his left hand, pick up the ticket, sign with his left hand, and hand it back—no discernible interaction, or for that matter, enjoyment.

At first, I was disappointed, wondering how would we communicate with Larry Bird that we were the very Fingerhuts with whom he had shared a phone conversation two days ago? Then again, if we got down there for an autograph, we could blend in because everyone was doing the same thing. A plan began to take shape, albeit one with several chances, and relying a lot on fast talking. After two Olympic performers came out for the halftime show and wowed the crowd with a wicked trampoline routine that went from double flips and skis to snowboards triple flips, I said, “Let’s roll.”

The three of us headed down the steps, but I hung back to practice our dilemma with on a nearby usher who surely could do nothing for us. Sure enough, he kind of shrugged and told me to ask someone down closer. Once we got as close as we could, about 30 feet from Larry but without access to the lowest section, I turned to Phil, a nearby usher featuring the Conseco Fieldhouse standard uniform of a white, pinstriped shirt under a green jacket, topped off with a green bowtie.

“Phil,” I said, “What are the chances of getting down to talk to Larry Bird?”

“Let me see your ticket,” he said, glancing at the numbers, and stating, “None.”

“Phil,” I said, “This is my Dad, we’re from St. Louis, and this game is his Christmas present. I wrote a letter to the Pacers this week, and Larry Bird called us on the phone Friday, and told us to come say hi. Can you help us out?”

Phil the usher’s face told us we were crazy, but like a good, fellow Midwestern wage-earner, he didn’t tell us to get lost, instead telling us we MIGHT have a shot if we went to Guest Services. So we trekked around the corner to the ‘Guest Relations’ window, where a man and a woman sat, fortunately with not many people around to help.

I caught the woman’s eye, and she asked, “Can I help you?”

I went into the spiel. “This is my Dad, tonight is his Christmas present. I wrote a letter to the Pacers this week, and Larry Bird called him—“

And then our night was made. The woman interrupted me with, “Oh, you’re the St. Lou-ee-zians.”

Taken aback momentarily, I said, “Well, St. Lou-isans,” correcting her, but quickly continuing, “you’ve heard about us? What’s your name?”

“BJ,” she told us. “I’m the one who got your letter.”

Great Scott, Marty!!! This was heavy, Doc!!!

This is BJ!

She said to wait a moment, and walked away, talking on a walkie-talkie. She told us she would see if Larry was down there, and if we could go.

For about five minutes or so, we talked with the other staff member sitting there, a 6’4” man named Rob Eaton. He and Dad talked about the old days of the NBA and ABA, St. Louis Spirits, and all the players they knew and liked. We had made a friend.

BJ and Rob--what a team!

Rob then got a call, directed us upstairs, then ran after us and called us back. He brought us back down, where we met BJ, who was smiling. She walked us down the concourse, then abruptly turned and said, “Wait, does everybody have to go?”

Slightly dejected, but grateful for this chance nonetheless, I pointed to Dad and told her he was the most important one, and it did not matter if we missed out. Later on, Dad would say that the face he made told her that he was going to pass if his sons were not included. I think BJ saw this, and pleasantly aid, “All right, follow me.”

We walked down the steps of the lower bowl, right down to the basket supports, and hung a left, walking between the front row folks and the cameramen and cheerleaders (I think, everything was a blur at this point). The second half had started, but the game was the last thing on our minds at this point. I was inconspicuously fumbling a little with my camera, wanting to catch whatever I could without making a scene or looking too much like some foreign tourist. I put it on video mode, hit record, and looked straight ahead.

Led by BJ, we approached the security detail, just as a timeout was finishing up. We were now on the other side of the railing and inches away from NBA deity. I heard BJ say to go stand against the wall, and started toward the players’ tunnel. Then she called out to me, I turned around, and there was Dad, reaching up to shake the hand—the right hand, the shooting hand, the hand responsible for so many great memories of countless fans, and the hand that none of the other autograph seekers and fans were privy to—of his basketball hero.

Larry was smiling politely, looking Dad right in the eye, and said, “Nice to meet you. Thanks for coming.”

He reached for Mark’s hand, shook it, and then extended his hand to me.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “And Happy Birthday!”

“Thank you,” Larry Bird said, and turned his attention to the game.

video
Unfortunately, this video is the closest I came to documenting the epic meeting with Larry Bird. Notice at the very last second, the blinding lights appear exactly where Larry's head should be. Coincidence? I think not.

We looked at BJ, exchanged a mutual nod, and began the walk back upstairs. Our immediate reactions were delayed, because we started talking with BJ, a wonderful woman who ended up taking us on an impromptu, 20-minute walk around Conseco Fieldhouse. This walk was by no means a special VIP tour or anything, but she hit some high points, like taking us to the best view of the new football stadium down the street, then to a vacant, reservation-only party room featuring 10,000 basketball cards on the wall. Knowing that I probably missed my only photo opportunity of the actual man, I found the nicest, framed picture of Larry Bird among these cards and took a picture—that would have to do.

As it turned out, BJ knew nothing about the fax, but said that she had forwarded the actual email to Larry himself, and he took it upon himself to call us. We thanked BJ sincerely, and returned to our seats with about a minute left in the third quarter. At that point, we weren’t exactly in the clouds after our very brief interaction, but all three of us were suitably satisfied, knowing that our experience had been elevated exponentially, and that we had just had a meeting with greatness. I told Dad that I had gotten exactly what I asked for, a handshake and a hello. I pondered, “Imagine if I had asked for drinks and game of HORSE!”

Our mission accomplished on the Larry Bird objective, we settled back into our seats to concentrate on the excellent contest unfolding before us. The plucky young Pacers put in a bucket to end the third quarter up three, 81-78. The final twelve minutes saw the lead go back and forth, complete with crucial missed free throws (Kendrick Perkins), solid clutch passing and defense (Jarrett Jack), and sizzling 3-point shooting from both teams. At one point, Marquis Daniels on the Pacers and Ray Allen on the Celtics were both hovering around the 25-point mark, going back and forth.

As the final minute ticked away, the Celtics needed three points to tie. Because they were losing, we ended up bonding with the Celtics fan behind us and cheering on Boston—at this point, we were cheering not for either team, but simply for the game to go to overtime. Eddie House, the Celtics headband-sporting super-sub, missed a three pointer from the corner with under ten seconds left, but the ball ended up in the hands of the Truth. With at least one Pacer player right in his face, Paul Pierce lofted a beauty of a shot that hung for several seconds, then dropped through the net with a SPLOOSH! Tie game, 105-all, Pacers missed their final shot, and we went to overtime.

105-105 score at the end of regulation after a Paul Pierce trey.

Ray Allen took over in overtime, boosting his season-high point total to 35 on a stellar 7-12 shooting. The Celtics left with a 122-117 victory and a 12-game win streak.
122-117 Celtics over Pacers, final score after Ray Allen owning overtime.
Dad's wish: rub T.J. Ford's head in front of Roy Hibbert
Now we were in the clouds, our every wish granted for this day. We mulled about the Fieldhouse a little while longer, snapping a few great pictures, including Dad in front of a gift shop display of Larry’s Boston and High School basketball jerseys next to Reggie Miller’s Pacers jersey. I grabbed a nearby photo (the same one framed in the room upstairs) of Larry, and a Pacers basketball; this photo could be the quintessential photo of the trip for Dad.

Our minds full and our stomachs empty, we went to a nearby establishment for food and surprisingly cheap draft beers. The orange-themed restaurant known for wings and big scenery provided the perfect place to catch some highlights of the day’s football games and reflect on all the little details of the last four hours. Around midnight, after a full day of memories, we hit the sack.

One final note of little consequence: During the night, Indianapolis was hit with some seriously bitter winter weather. The black ice that formed on the surrounding highways made our ride home an adventure, where we passed or were stuck in traffic because of no less than nine separate crashed vehicles, including three overturned SUVs and three zig-zagged tractor trailers. We passed the time by listening to a Bill Walton interview from last year about the Celtics, playing catch with a football on the highway’s grass median beside morning gridlock, and rehashing all the good stuff many times over.

Merry Christmas, Papa Joe, and thank you for all of our memories, basketball and otherwise!

15 comments:

Rob said...

Glad to see there are other NBA diehards in St. Louis. I think I'll be heading down to Memphis this season to see Iverson and the Grizz.

DB said...

What a great, great story. Thanks for sharing this.

Joe said...

Great story! Your Dad is lucky to have such considerate sons. Points for Larry Bird and the Pacer Organization too.

Jon M. Wear said...

Great story. Thanks for sharing. Larry is alright...

Anonymous said...

GREAT story. Thanks for sharing with us!

ChrisH said...

Great story. I tried the same thing for my Dad and via email got Gary Becker (nobel winning economist) to agree to have lunch with him for his 65th b-day. Pops was thrilled when I told him. It was a great gift. Unfortunately prof Becker was not as gracious as Larry Bird. he didn't return any emails when I tried to schedule the lunch, and eventually backed out with no explanation or apology. It was kind of shitty.

The Guileless Vituperator said...

That's a great story and I could definitely relate to the experience. I've had the privilege of meeting a handful of celebrities and they never quite live up to what you hope will happen.

In the case of Larry Bird, I was brought up on the Big Three and I watched us win in 1981, 1984 and 1986, so Larry was very much at the top of my "hero" list as a kid.

Given the effort you put into the e-mail and Larry's acknowledgment, I'd like to think he could have spent a bit more time with you. Granted, he probably gets constant requests for autographs and photo-ops, but still... you guys went to a LOT of extra effort to meet him and I think that should have been obvious to him.

I'm really not trying to knock Larry, but let's just say I'd have come away from that encountered slightly deflated. But that was a very cool thing you did for your dad and, more than meeting Larry, I'd be willing to bet he'll treasure that time with YOU a lot more.

JT DeBolt said...

What an awesome, well-written story, Joe! Thank you for taking us along on a wonderful trip with the Fingerhut boys. Amazing story and fantastic story-telling!
~JT

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