This article first appeared in the Post Journal on October 28, 2007, days after my brother returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Las Vegas and a visit with his sports hero and a few other NBA legends.
The photograph below, which spans two pages in a hard-cover book entitled ”NBA at 50,” is of a man, who has his chin resting in his hands. The shot is taken from such a close range that one can read the inscriptions on the rings that he wears on each one of his fingers. Bill Russell, one of the NBA’s 50 all-time greatest players, knows all about rings and, more specifically, those of the championship variety. After all, between 1956 and 1969, the former Boston Celtics great led his team to 11 titles in 13 seasons.
Tack on two NCAA championships he won at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal and Russell is arguably the greatest winner in the history of team sports.
” … The only really important thing was to try and win every game,” Russell said in a quote accompanying the magnificent photograph, ”because when I got through no one could say, ‘Well, he was the best at this or that.’ The only thing that really mattered was who won. And there is nothing subjective about that.”
Not surprising, at least to Doug Berlin.
The Jamestown resident has literally carried the book – and figuratively decades of memories – all the way to Las Vegas, hoping to have his dreams realized by rubbing elbows with Russell, his lifelong hero.
So as Berlin sits down to eat breakfast last week at the ultra-posh Wynn Las Vegas Hotel and Casino – he was one of 30 campers to take part in the Bill Russell and His Legendary Friends Basketball Camp last week – he can’t believe what he’s seeing.
First, John Havlicek walks in, he the owner of eight championship rings and a former teammate of Russell’s. Sam Jones, another Celtic icon with 10 rings, soon follows and Berlin has to pinch himself to realize it isn’t all a dream.
At least he doesn’t think it is.
But then Russell makes his appearance. Berlin, a 53-year-old U.S. Postal worker who first saw the 6-foot-9 center at Madison Square Garden in the early 1960s, just about choked on his fresh fruit.
”He walked in front of me and I said, ‘It’s him, my hero,”’ Berlin recalled. ”It’s like I was watching him on a big-screen TV.”
Larger than life.
Berlin was finally snapped back to reality when he was tapped on the shoulder.
”Doug,” said a man known for his no-look passes, championship rings and ear-to-ear smiles,
”do you mind if I sit here?” Berlin’s new breakfast guest was none other than Magic Johnson.
Berlin was smitten with Russell upon seeing him for the first time during a visit to Madison Square Garden with his father Al more than 40 years ago.
”I saw the Celtics come out with those green shiny uniforms and then this guy came out and it was like there was a light on Bill Russell. … There were nine guys on the court and this vision.”
From that point on, Berlin emulated everything Russell did.
”I was the only Jewish kid on Long Island wearing low-cut black Chuck Taylor Converse shoes … and I was the only Jewish kid wearing the No. 6. … I could have gone any one of a million ways, but it just happened to be him. With my luck he was on a great team that won, which made it all the better.”
And even though his interest in the NBA isn’t nearly as great now as when the Celtics were piling up championships like cordwood, Berlin’s love for Russell has never waned.
”He’s been a hero all these years,” Berlin said.
Jim Berlin has been well aware of his younger brother’s love for the Hall-of-Famer, dating back to the days when the boys shared a bedroom in their Long Island home.
So a few weeks ago he decided to do something about it.
The website for Bill Russell and his Legendary Friends Adult Basketball Camp proclaims the four-day visit to Las Vegas as an ”incredible weekend filled with basketball skills and competition, fun and exciting games. Establishing acquaintances with this exceptional group will be the foundation for a most memorable event.”
Amazingly, there’s no embellishment in that description.
In addition to Russell, Johnson, Havlicek and Jones, the other ”legends” who appeared at the camp were Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Charles Barkley and Ann Meyers-Drysdale.
In the middle of it all was Berlin, who read about Russell’s camp in The Boston Globe and thought it would be ”cool,” but never envisioned himself ever attending it.
That’s when Jim Berlin, the chief executive officer and founder of Logistics Plus in Erie, sprang into action.
”I got an email from my brother and he asked me if I’d seen the website,” Doug said. ”I wrote back to him and told him I had.”
”Pack your bags, you’re going.”
Despite initial reluctance, Doug was able to get the time off from work and finally agreed to take his brother up on the offer.
”He left me no wiggle room,” Doug said.
Added Jim: ”Once I heard Bill Russell was having his first fantasy camp, I said, ‘Doug needs to be there.’ ”
So on Oct. 17, Doug and his wife Maureen took a flight from Buffalo to Las Vegas.
They were eventually met by their daughter Erin, who flew in from Florida. Their sons, Matt and Mickey, received daily updates at home.
”I guess when Jim saw this,” Doug said as tears welled in his eyes, ”he knew it was made for me.”
The owner of a magnetic personality with the ability to carry on conversation with people in all walks of life, Doug was the only ”camper” who made the trip as the result of a ”gift.”
Still wired from the trip days later, Doug recalled a conversation with Russell’s daughter,
Karen, on the first day of the camp, during which he told her he was a mailman from Jamestown. When he mentioned that he was there courtesy of a gift from his brother, she was stunned, calling him the luckiest guy at the camp.
But Doug knew Ms. Russell wasn’t considering him fortunate only because he was in the company of these great players.
Rather, she realized how unusual it was for brothers to have the kind of relationship that the Berlins do, and that one brother was able to fulfill another’s lifelong dream.
”It’s not that he sent Maureen and I to Las Vegas, gave us ‘x’ amount of dollars and said, ‘Have a good time,’ ” Doug said, as he shook his head in disbelief. ”It’s that Bill Russell is my boyhood hero, who is doing this once-in- a-lifetime thing that Jim found out about and as soon as he heard about it, he said, ‘This would be great for my brother.’
”Here’s a guy who used to be a factory worker and really an ‘every man.’ He wrote scripts and he had a chance to go to Hollywood, but he had a family so he didn’t do it. So he worked at Red Star and it went under. He started his company on his own. In 10 years, he’s got hundreds of employees all over the world, and he hasn’t changed one bit.
”If you knew him 20 years ago, he’s exactly the same.”
Jim, meanwhile, said that sending his brother to Las Vegas ”made me feel great.”
”It’s so neat,” he said. ”He’s such a good guy, and he’s done so much for kids in the Jamestown community for 20 years, and he loves doing it. … It was kind of a way for me to give back.”
The legends and campers spent plenty of time together during their weekend in Las Vegas. Not only were there basketball games – Doug was on a team coached by West, Drexler and Meyers-Drysdale – but there were also ”mixers” and meals at the hotel, where Doug and Maureen had a suite on the 50th floor.
”The bathtub was the size of my bedroom at home,” Doug joked.
By the end of the weekend, Doug had managed to finish in fourth place in the hot-shot competition despite being hobbled by a pair of painful Achilles’ tendons. But, most importantly, he had had a chance to talk, to laugh and to sit down and have a meal with each of the basketball greats.
The autographs and photo opportunities were merely a bonus.
”They were all engaging and warm in their own way,” Doug said.
When it was time to say goodbye, the mailman from Jamestown sought out Russell one last time.
”I told him that he’s always been my hero and that he’d done nothing to diminish it,” Doug said.
A day later, back in Jamestown, he received a visit from another, more personal, hero – his brother.
”I told him the trip was the greatest,” Doug said. ”He just smiled.”