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January 17, 2018

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Recalling the night Cliff Findlay trumped Bill Russell

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Cliff Findlay watches a recent UNLV game at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The night I met Cliff Findlay, his knees were buried in my back, which would have seemed strange except that Bill Russell’s knees were buried in the back of a friend of mine.

That’s it. End of story.

Not quite. I met Findlay, a former Rebel player and longtime booster, local car-sales magnate and the founder of Findlay Prep, at a UNLV-Utah basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2004. I had never talked to him until that night, though we have quite a few common friends around town. Every so often, I’d be asked if I knew “Big Cliff,” and at first I didn’t know if I was being asked about a person or some rock-climbing locale. But I had heard Findlay was the type of man who just took over any social situation, be it a fundraising cocktail party or a Runnin’ Rebel game at the T&M.

I finally met Findlay that night as I slid down the aisle and slipped into the seat directly in front of him. Actually, I met Findlay’s left knee first, then his right, as they were practically sharing my seat.

We shook hands. Rather, he “shook hand” and I “gripped paw,” as Findlay is one of these imposing, larger-than-life individuals (my colleague, pal and sometime spiritual adviser Rob Miech wrote a fine story about Findlay this week on this Web site) with a pair of gigantic, vice-grip hands. At 6-foot-8 and nearly 300 pounds, Findlay seemed to tower over the person next to him, who happened to be Bill Russell. Not the former L.A. Dodgers shortstop, or someone who might be coincidentally named Bill Russell, but the former Boston Celtic who won nine NBA championships and has accomplished more on a basketball court than nearly anyone to ever play the game. Russell stands, and uncomfortably sits, at 6-foot-9. But his slender build made him seem shorter than Findlay.

Russell’s gangly legs were partially in our row, too. We were legendarily inconvenienced.

Soon after I talked with Findlay, I turned around and introduced myself to Russell, who was of course summarily impressed (cough). I told him that I was once a sports writer up in Chico, Calif., and had taken part in a news conference with him many years ago when he was GM of the Sacramento Kings. It was the first day of the 1989 NBA draft, and the Kings – specifically, Russell – had just selected “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison as the No. 1 pick overall. At that memory, Russell grinned and said, “Pervis had great footwork.” Pervis also missed 48 of 82 games that year because of a lingering and mysterious injury to one of those great feet. I think it was described as an “impinged heel” or, maybe, “a corn.” Never Nervous was dealt to the Washington Bullets after his star-crossed rookie season. I believe the Kings got a color commentator in the deal.

As expected, several Rebel fans waded over to get Russell’s autograph that night. He famously does not sign but was smiling and clearly enjoying the attention. Findlay would tell everyone approaching his iconic friend, “You’re in the presence of greatness,” and, “It’s not every night you get to meet a legend.” But one young man, probably in his early teens, walked down our aisle carrying a UNLV program. He stopped at the row behind us, at Findlay’s seat, and asked, “Can I have your autograph?”

We all looked around, at Russell, then at Findlay. Findlay looked at us, then at the kid. “Uhhhhm. Sure!” Findlay finally said, his big face beaming. Russell barked out that famous cackle – this kid had no idea who Findlay was sitting next to. “You want anything else? A picture?” Findlay continued, his eyes dancing. “Now, you hold onto that – it’s going to be worth something someday!”

The kid thanked Findlay and took off with what he was sure was the Holy Grail of game programs.

“Can you believe that, Russ?” Findlay kept saying. And Russell just answered, “You know, somehow I can.”

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