I was playing in a summer basketball league, on a pretty good team consisting of mostly former college players. We entered our team in the Duckworth Basketball Tournament, which was held each year at Thaddeus Stevens State School of Technology (now Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology).
One of our teammates had a connection to the Lancaster Lightning, the local Continental Basketball Association team, and Cazzie Russell was the coach. Russell was a former NBA player who had just retired and was in his first coaching role.
Russell was an outstanding NBA player and at that time was not far from his prime. He had a stellar career playing for the University of Michigan and led the Wolverines to Final Four appearances in 1964 and 1965.
He was the first overall pick in the 1966 NBA draft and played for the New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and other teams for 12 seasons. He was on the All-Rookie team, won the NBA title with the Knicks in 1971 and was an NBA All-Star.
Russell agreed to play with us in the tournament, and we were excited!
We thought we had a good chance of winning the tournament with Russell on our roster, and it was very exciting to compete with an NBA player. One of my teammates sold Avia sneakers and sponsored the team; we were outfitted with new warm-up jerseys and uniforms and were ready to go.
On the day of our first game, we were all in the locker room getting dressed. One by one, my teammates finished dressing and went to the court to warm up. Finally, it was just me and Russell finishing getting dressed. I was a little in awe of Russell and a bit nervous but did not want to appear so. I was hoping to impress him with my skills on the court, but I was unsure of what to say to him. It turned out, Russell was easy to connect with and we had a nice conversation.
Then, as he was tying his shoes, he looked over at me and said, “I think you have your warm-up on backward.” I looked down, and sure enough, it was backward. How embarrassing! It could not get worse than this.
But it did. I took off my warm-up, and, as I am turning it around to put it back on, Russell says, “I think you have your jersey on backward, too!” I looked and it was true. I could not have been more embarrassed — so much for a good first impression. Russell was very gracious, and we had a good laugh.
Our team did not do as well in the tournament as we had hoped. We didn’t even make it into the top four. Russell did his part and played well, but I think we expected him to do it all and did not pull our weight.
The author lives in Maytown.
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