Image: Bill Russell
AP
Want to play basketball with the legendary Bill Russell? Well, at 73, Russell may not play. But it'll cost you $15,500.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 10/17/2007 9:08:09 PM ET 2007-10-18T01:08:09

Are you a sports fan with $15,500 to burn?

Here are a few ways to spend that money:

1. Three years of box-seat tickets for any Major League Baseball team, with enough left over for several bellyfuls of hot dogs.

2. Every cable sports channel known to man until Alex Rodriguez retires.

3. Tickets (at face value) to at least the next 15 Super Bowls.

Or it can be dropped in three days at a fantasy camp.

That’s where a some aging hoops fanatics are spending their money through Oct. 20 at the inaugural Friends of Bill Russell camp at the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

And what will they get for their $15,500? They will be greeted by Bill’s Concierge Team upon their arrival, according to the Web site. On all three mornings the camp is in session, they will start the day with a Vegas breakfast buffet (meals that are often comped even to low rollers). Drills, contests and “chalk talk by our legends,” according to the Web site, are all included in the package. During one evening, each camper will have his photo taken with Russell. For an additional $1,250, camp goers can stay an extra night at the Wynn and play a round of golf with “Bill Russell and His Legendary Friends.”

There is no doubt Russell — a Boston Celtics center who captured 11 championships in 13 seasons and is known as one of the best shot-blockers of all time — was an extraordinary basketball player. At the same time, he has not played competitively in four decades. He is 73 years old.

The prices have skyrocketed and the drills can be found at a local rec center, but sports fantasy camps that guarantee appearances by retired sports greats are more popular than ever. Why? The instruction is definitely secondary; it is not like middle-aged camp goers are going to quit their jobs and turn pro after a session. The lure for the business executive — whose childhood dreams of sinking the winning shot in the NBA Finals have been forever dashed — is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hobnob with one’s hero or heroes. Though spreadsheets may dominate his time now, his best memories are most likely playing sports and/or cheering for athletes as a kid.

Basketball seems to be the sport of choice among fantasy campers (even 50-year-olds can play a lighthearted game and just need to bring a jersey, shorts and sneakers, which may be why NFL fantasy camps have never taken off).  Baseball fantasy camps also captivate the public, often at cheaper prices than their basketball counterparts. At $3,200 per person, the January fantasy camp for the Chicago White Sox in Tucson, Ariz. is already sold out. A similarly priced fantasy camp early next year will celebrate the 40th reunion of the Detroit Tigers’ victory in the 1968 World Series. Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich will entertain Motown fans with tales of their defeat of St. Louis (no plans yet for the 100th anniversary camp of the Chicago Cubs’ 1908 championship, considering Tinker, Evers and Chance all died before fantasy camps were born).

Many camps survive without a headline name to lure fans — and some work even when the supporting cast lacks star power. The pitch for the NBA All-Star Game Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas this past February at $5,000 per person included: “Your teammates, NBA legends Darryl Dawkins, Michael Ray Richardson, Norm Nixon and Artis Gilmore, stand by you as you release the game-winning shot.” When one of your main draws is Dawkins, a backboard-smasher best known as Chocolate Thunder — who may not even be able to touch the rim these days at his advanced age — something is amiss.         

The creator of a fantasy camp doesn’t need to have played in the pros to draw customers. Take Duke University basketball coach Mike Kryzyewski, who finished his fifth year running Coach K Academy this summer. About 60 Blue Devil fanatics shelled out $10,000 apiece for five days, taking part in everything from tryouts to a championship tournament.

The crème de la crème of fantasy camps is Michael Jordan’s Senior Flight School. Featuring basketball minds from Hubie Brown to Dean Smith (and complete with free-throw line taunting from Bill Walton), the camp at the Mirage in Las Vegas checks in at a whopping $17,500 per person. More than a decade old, the camp benefits not only from Jordan’s name recognition but from the fact he can still dazzle on the court during the four-day session. And it won’t take just anyone; only those 35 or older need apply.

For athletes whose glory has passed, fantasy camps are a great way to make money while guaranteeing an adoring audience. For camp goers, the fantasy is hard to beat – until the bill snaps them back into reality.

Last, but not least …
During the 118 years it has catered to wealthy clients, Northern Trust has sponsored opera opening nights and museum exhibits, but never a pro sports event. That changed on Monday, when the Chicago-based company announced it had struck a five-year pact to rename the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles stop the Northern Trust Open.

Why now? “It’s a time when we feel we should shine a spotlight on our brand,” said Kelly Mannard, the head of global marketing at Northern Trust, one of the biggest independent banks in the U.S. “The brand is undiluted. We don’t have any M&A angst.”

Mannard sees the event at Riviera Country Club, scheduled for February, as a strong fit for Northern, especially since L.A. boasts the second-largest number of millionaire households in the country “and the people who follow golf mirror our demographic,” she said.

Mannard suggested Northern — which replaces Nissan as the title sponsor — could start sponsoring players and put together a sports marketing group sometime next year. “We don’t tend to do one-shot deals. We start with something we think will be successful and build on it,” she said.

For more information

David Sweet, a sports business writer in the Chicago area, can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com.

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