Bill Russell taught me a valuable truth about famous people. Whether someone was a 6-foot-10 basketball legend like him, the President of the United States, an Oscar-winner actor, or a much-heralded jet pilot, people are just people. There’s no need to be starstruck.
That lesson has served me well as a journalist.
Russell’s death last week at 88 brought back a vivid memory of a conversation with him in the late 1960s at Jamestown Community College. I had arrived late to hear a guest speaker in the college gym. The outside doors were locked. As I walked around in the dark, looking for a way in, I bumped into a puzzled Bill Russell, also seeking entry.
I didn’t recognize him, or know that he was the guest speaker. We were just two lost souls in search of an unlocked door.
We went hither and yon around the building for probably 15 minutes, chatting about what Jamestown was like, my college classes and that the college really needed better outside lighting and signage. He never mentioned he was the star attraction.
We finally found an open door into the gym. As we walked in together, the people in the bleachers rose to their feet cheering. I remember him waving to the crowd, then stopping to lean down to shake my hand to thank me for helping him.
“Nice talking, Mike,” he said. He held onto our handshake for a moment as he waved with his other hand.
After Russell’s talk, I was a celebrity — briefly. Students asked me how I knew Russell, thinking I had escorted him to campus. I remember thinking and saying he was just a regular guy, really. A nice guy. Funny too.
That way of thinking about the arguably famous stuck with me when I began working as a newspaper reporter years later in California. I was quickly thrust into situations where I was in the company of politicians like former Gov. Jerry Brown, and U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, winemakers Robert Mondavi and August Sebastiani, and well-known musicians, artists and actors. Like Bill Russell, these people were just regular folks one-on-one.
In recent decades here in the Finger Lakes, I’ve chatted with our U.S. senators, innumerable public figures, and spent an afternoon with actor James Cromwell, known for his starring roles in “Star Trek: First Contact” and “Babe.” All regular folks.
In several decades of teaching journalism at the Sacramento and Chico campuses of California State University, it was challenging trying to cure undergraduates of being dazzled by famous people. This was especially true of would-be sports journalists who often considered athletes heroes.
My Bill Russell anecdote often helped calm the hero worship. But, I also confessed to classes about the one time in my career when I fell prey to star worship/awe.
I wangled an invitation to a political fundraiser in Chico where Jane Fonda would be a guest. The room was packed. I milled about, practicing a clever way to introduce myself and ask questions about her progressive politics. I thought I spied her and stepped backward, colliding with a woman behind me.
Yup, I had just bumped butts with Jane Fonda.
I was totally tongue-tied. She took my hand and gave me a warm, million-dollar, movie star smile. “Jane Fonda,” was all she said. Then she turned and melted into the crowd.
My lesson that I shared for decades with my students is that a less starstruck journalist would have followed her to chat when my tongue eventually untied itself.
I wish I had.
Thanks, Bill Russell, for all the many great things you did on and off the basketball court. And thanks for the lesson that people are just people.