One Man’s Inspirational Quest To Meet Larry Bird

You might not think it worth your time to read a very long blog post about meeting an NBA executive, but before you judge the story linked below, there’s a couple of things you should know. First, the executive in question is Larry Bird, President of Basketball Operations for the Pacers. Second, it’s a pretty touching account of a son’s gift to his father.

When you look up ***hole in the dictionary, many times the entry will be accompanied by the picture of a pro athlete. And the bigger they are, often the more unsavory than can become. But one man had a dream: To get his father, who is suffering from a heart ailment, a meet-n-greet with Basketball Jesus. This is the story of that unlikely quest.

To understand the reverence that some basketball fans have for Bird is to try to fathom some people’s connection to religion, or bacon. (Mmmm … religion). It so happens that Joe Fingerhut’s father is one of those Bird worshippers, and more power to him, I say. Everyone has an idol. It’s always been my opinion that such meetings should be avoided, lest the celebrity in questions lives down to your worst expectations. But as you’ll see below, that doesn’t always happen.

In deciding to take his dad to an NBA game as a Christmas present, Joe faced one main obstacle: No team in St. Louis. So he decided on a Pacers game, due in no small part to the fact that they were playing the Celtics at a time when they could make the trip.

But what if, thought Joe, I could make this the present of a lifetime, and get dad a meeting with Bird? So he did what you or I would have told him was destined to fail: He wrote an email to the Pacers’ general web site address.

Here’s the email, which is fairly long, but I show it to you in its entirety to illustrate how unlikely it was that someone would actually read the whole thing, let alone forward it to Larry Bird.

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!!!

Joe A. Fingerhut

Nothing came of the email, or a subsequent fax. Nothing, that is, until Joe’s cell phone began ringing the day before the game. Joe picks it up from there:

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.

Joe’s dad did talk with Bird, both over the phone and at the game. The entire story is on Fingerhut’s blog, right here. It’s worth a look, maybe just to remind oneself that some people, no matter how famous, remember where they came from and what sports is really about. Or, maybe you just might need to feel good about something today.