Airport encounter with Hall of Famers helps pass the time


As a three-hour layover in Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport began, I couldn’t help but overhear three gentlemen telling stories of their athletic pursuits. I bravely went over and introduced myself, asking if I could sit down and listen. All three storytellers – Oscar Robertson, Bobby Bell and Paul Krause – consented.

Robertson, named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, was a 12-time All-Star in 13 seasons (1960-73).

Bell, drafted by two pro football leagues, was a two-time All-American at the University of Minnesota and was named all-pro every year he played from 1965 through 1971. Despite being drafted by Minnesota, he opted instead for Kansas City of the rival AFL, playing 12 seasons as a defensive end.

Krause, a Michigan native who played at Iowa, started at free safety in four Super Bowls as a Minnesota Viking in his 16 NFL seasons (1964-79), which include four in Washington, the team that drafted him in the second round in 1964.

All three are Hall of Famers: Robertson for basketball (1980) and both Bell (1983) and Krause (1993) for pro football. I made sure this impromptu nine-minute interview session would not be too intrusive but respectful of their time. More importantly, I didn’t want to make them miss their flights.

Others have asked these athletes to compare their playing careers to those of present-day players. Robertson said of such inquiries, “When anyone asks me that question, I don’t think they know much about the sport.” (This columnist did not ask such comparison-type questions; if I had, the men would have immediately asked me to leave.)

Although there wasn’t free agency during his day, Robertson didn’t lament what recently happened this NBA off-season. “LeBron [James] is not a slave – he has a right to decide that he didn’t want this man’s [the Cleveland owner’s] money.”

Now-former free agents James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade signing, or in Wade’s case, re-signing with Miami didn’t in the least bother this Hall of Famer and once head of the NBA players’ union. “This is the first time in the history of basketball where three players orchestrated a deal like this,” he pointed out.

“And it won’t be the last.”

Football may see something similar soon, Bell predicted: “It’s already starting now.”

I then asked “the Big O” if he forced management to trade him to Milwaukee, where he won a league title in 1971 after 10 seasons in Cincinnati. “What I did,” said Robertson, “was as soon as teams [started] calling, I called my attorney and said, ‘I’m from the Midwest [he grew up in Indianapolis, where he graduated from high school, and later played and graduated from the University of Cincinnati], so I am not going out to the West Coast or the East Coast. I’m staying in the Midwest.’ So we picked out Milwaukee. They made the deal, and that’s how it happened.”

The legendary guard then teamed with a future Hall of Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then only a second-year pro center. “He really didn’t understand what he could do,” recalled Robertson.

“He was really tall, thin, and guys pushed him around. He didn’t like being touched and didn’t understand that the reason they were touching him was because he was great. I said, ‘If you wasn’t great, they wouldn’t bother you. You is going to have to learn to get over that – you can’t fight these guys.’ He acted like he wanted to fight every time someone pushed him or fouled him hard.”

Seemingly a pet peeve for Robertson is when someone is anointed “great” when it’s undeserved, usually by the media. “People say great when they aren’t great,” he pointed out. “There are a lot of guys that you don’t know of who are great basketball players and really play well. Someone dunks the ball, and the media and press say you’re great.”

Robertson even opined about Bell’s sport: “Brett Farve is a good football player, but I think it’s a shame that they [the Vikings] let him get away with that,” he said of the one-year Minnesota QB. Bell nodded his head, seconding that emotion. “If I was on the team,” Robertson continued, “I’d say, ‘Listen, if Brett don’t come to [training] camp, I’m not coming either. If you’re going to trade me, then trade me.'”

“What’s happening is that a lot of players are dictating to the coaches,” said Bell. “[Teams] are paying them so much money.”

Over the course of my career, I have interviewed several Hall of Famers: George Mikan, C. Vivian Stringer, Jennifer Gillom and Teresa Edwards, to list a few. But never at an airport. My recent encounter with these three Hall of Famers made a usually disturbing long layover a bit less so.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record