It was autumn 1987, and I was an 18-year-old intern at the prestigious headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, Inc. - tucked inside the brewery's famous tour center in St. Louis, Missouri.
Finishing up my third paid internship with a Fortune 500 company - one garnered through and required by Florida A & M University's School of Business - I enjoyed the cast of characters who welcomed me in the marketing-management division building.
It was unlike any other boring and staid corporate job I'd held: the famous Clydesdales were right beneath our feet in the touring center, and the monotony of 8-to-5 workdays could be broken up with a stop downstairs to witness the cleanest horse stables I'd ever smelled in my life.
But one day, the buzz around the place was especially thick.
No, it wasn't another appearance by Spuds Mackenzie, the well-known pitch-dog who first appeared in a Bud Light Super Bowl XXI advertisement in 1987. This time it was a famous human mere feet away in the conference room that had my coworkers a-twitter.
His name was Hakeem Olajuwon, and basketball fans knew him as something special on the court for the Houston Rockets.
I barely followed the game back then -- save for girls in my hometown and across the country swooning over cuties like Reggie Theus of the Chicago Bulls.
Growing up in Chicago, I thought the Lakers were also our team - so that goes to show you my basketball knowledge at that point.
But by the time I entered my junior year of college, a much-bandied-about name like Olajuwon's sounded familiar to me, so when my coworker gave me the opportunity to meet the man who'd shown up to discuss some promotional event with the firm, I reticently jumped at the chance to see the player in person.
Meeting "Akeem The Dream"
All 7 feet of the 24-year-old sat at the conference room table - and remained seated - as I walked sheepishly up to him.
I remember asking for his autograph, and he kindly obliged, writing "Akeem The Dream" and "#34" on a small slip of white paper and handing it back to me with ginormous hands.
"Thank you," I probably said, as I quickly ducked out of the room, somewhat aware (and perhaps thankful) that I'd worn my form-fitting linen beige skirt with the little side kick-out pleat that day.
I was intensely aware of Nigerian eyes on my back as I left the room, even without turning around.
I've never been the type of person who likes approaching celebrities, so my motive was to get in and out of that room fast, without bothering the superstar too much. Turns out I left too fast, according to the phenom, who in less than a decade would go on to win an Olympic gold medal as part of the United States national team.
"He said you didn't have to leave so fast," the coworker came out and told me, relaying a message from the man who would be dubbed one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
I stood there, speechless, partly flattered. I knew exactly what he was saying as I stared into the green eyes of the liaison, who remained expectantly silent for a few seconds as well, waiting for my response.
Worlds were colliding.
Olajuwon belonged to a special species of famous people that didn't seem to cross into the everyday world of someone like me. All of a sudden my colleague felt like a pimp procuring girls for a celebrity - at worst - and at best, a wing man perhaps introducing me to a whole different lifestyle - maybe a new boyfriend. Even a new husband in my craziest of fantasies.
If I would've tried to hunt the baller down for anything other than the autograph that my other coworker tried to obtain for her son and failed, because the baller had vanished by then, I think of how differently my life could've turned out.
I reflect on reality TV show stars like those of "Basketball Wives," with their tales of woe and many times, more kids than wedding rings.
Or maybe I would've been just one of those one-night "jump-offs" plenty of men have met on the road.
Either way, though I was far from a saint as a wild-child teen, I thank God the groupie-route didn't look attractive to me.
And now I have a nice, safe anecdote that's innocent enough for my lovely family to read all these years later in 2012 about the Olympian I crossed paths with so many years ago.
I kept that autograph for many of the 25 years that have elapsed since I met him, but misplaced it during moves over time. It's just as well. The cool story of meeting an Olympic hero is memory enough.
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