I have a few friends who are masters of the random celebrity encounter. They have no problem either approaching or breaking the ice with a famous person and have many stories about running into Quincy Jones, Milton Berle, Dave Matthews, or Lawrence Taylor, to name a few.

On the other hand, in those rare situations when I see a celebrity, I tend to sneak glances, elbowing and whispering to the people next to me, and keep my distance. So while I’ve seen plenty of celebrities, I don’t have any good stories about running into one and having a conversation.

That’s still mostly true, but I came closer than I’ve ever come to breaking that string on Saturday.

One of S’s cousins got married downtown Saturday. After the ceremony we headed to the Hilton to meet up with some other family members to pass the time before the reception. On the way there I joked with S. that we might see LeBron James, since the Heat were in town for their series with the Pacers.

We hung in the lobby for a few minutes then I left to find a restroom. A few minutes later my sister-in-law’s boyfriend popped into the restroom and said, “The Heat are out here!” I briskly walked back to the lobby. There were a couple tall guys in Heat workout gear heading to the elevators, but none of them were guys I recognized. I looked back towards the entrance and saw a very tall man with enormouse ears. Any basketball fan my age would immediately recognize him as Juwan Howard, who I forgot was even still playing.

At least I saw one player I knew, I thought. Shame I didn’t see LeBron or D-Wade or Mario Chalmers.

We made our way down to the bar and once seated, I noticed Erik Spoelstra, the Heat coach, standing at a booth a few feet away. I looked around on the off-chance some players were hanging around too, but didn’t see any. I pointed Spoelstra out to everyone in our group and explained who he was, how long he had been the coach, etc.

I had a voice mail to check so I walked back out to the lobby. I stepped through the bar door and two feet away from me there’s LeBron and some other players! I already had my phone to my ear, so I tried to be casual and not let my eyes bug out or act like I was calling people I knew to say, “I’m standing by LeBron!”

About 12 feet away, at the other main entrance door, I saw another player quietly walk in alone. He was wearing a hoodie pulled over his head, but I caught a glimpse of his face and had to do something I’d never done before.

“MARIO!” He turned and looked my way.
“ROCK CHALK!” and I held out a fist.

He pointed his fist at me, said “Rock Chalk,” back and continued down the hall. It was Mario Chalmers, the man responsible for the greatest moment in the history of basketball and probably all sports ever!

I had suddenly become a giddy 12-year-old, excited to have a brief encounter with someone I’ve watched on TV for years.1

A few minutes later Dwyane Wade arrived and took a quick picture with some people who had been waiting for him. I kicked myself for not being ready to grab Mario for a picture.

Eventually Spoelsra left the bar and the man he had been talking to finally slid out of the booth. It was legendary coach Pat Riley. As he walked by I gave him a slight nod, which I don’t know if he even saw. My father-in-law, though, who has no shyness or qualms about approaching people, slid over and asked him how long he had been in Miami. “Seventeen years,” was his terse response.

And then the excitement was over. I thought I saw a couple people at the bar who might have been covering the series for national media outlets, but no big names; just random reporters who I’ve seen at some point over the years but couldn’t remember their names.

A pretty fun way to waste the two hours between the wedding and the reception!

  1. The people who received my many texts Saturday afternoon can vouch for this.