BY GARRETT DAVIS
Around sundown on September 29, 2017, just hours after signing a five year, $205 million contract extension—the richest in NBA history—with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook cruises up to the back gate of a lavish community known as Gaillardia. Ironically, the 2016-2017 KIA NBA MVP stops at the north Gaillardia gate in a pristine white KIA SUV. Westbrook beams with his famous gapped-tooth grin toward the tiny guard house, waiting to pass through. After a moment, the door to the house opens and out steps “Big Mike.”
Mike waddles closer to Westbrook’s car with a resemblance to a 1965 Ford pickup truck: every step is slow, and perhaps rustic, but reliable and strong. The 75-year-old African American man, dressed in a cliche white button-down adorned with a gold, gleaming pin reading “Mike Wilson,” rumbles his way to Westbrook’s vehicle, pushes his aviator reading glasses closer to his face, and takes a good look at the NBA superstar.
“Hey, big guy,” Mike says.
“Wassup, Mike. Wanna open the gate?” Westbrook retorts.
“And who are you?” Mike says back.
Westbrook, possibly the biggest Oklahoma City celebrity, is slightly taken aback. A scowl that only appears when referees call a foul on him slowly creeps over his face.
“You serious, man?” Westbrook says.
“Yeah, I’m gonna need a name,” Mike responds.
Westbrook half grins and lets out a chuckle. “Just open the gate, Mike.”
“Play better ball,” Mike jokes as he hits the button, allowing Westbrook into his safely-guarded domain. He watches as one of the hottest commodities in professional basketball drives off into the neighborhood.
This is just one of the few conversations Mike Wilson has while solely manning the back gate of Gaillardia, which he has since 2009. The venerable senior drives to work every weekend, Friday through Tuesday, from a traditional red-brick house that he built with his wife of 38 years. One would be correct in assuming Mike looks forward to the brief banter with Gaillardia residents and visitors as he is not only isolated in his tiny guard house, but also returns to an empty home at night.
Mike’s wife passed in March of 2016 after a long fight with lung cancer that spread to her brain. His brother passed away in January 2016 after he wandered outside and froze to death due to confusion brought on by Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, Mike was also diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year. Regardless, Mike joyfully drives to work every weekend, enlivened by the conversations with those who stop by his small outpost.
“He’s just really sweet,” Heidi Zerby, a Gaillardia resident, said. “Generally, most of [the guards] don’t take time to come out and say hello…but we’ll chat about the Thunder or OSU.”
When Mrs. Zerby learned about some of Mike’s personal tragedies in the past year, she was understandably surprised by his positive, uplifting attitude.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were chatting and he mentioned he had radiation treatment,” Mrs. Zerby said. “He was telling me he had 40 to do…but he was just like, ‘I’m gonna beat it. I’ve made up my mind and I’m gonna beat it.’”
The Gaillardia residents and visitors often talk to the man, but never see inside of his post. He sits in a 9-by-4 foot room in a faded-green rolling chair propped up by another four legged chair. Cracks navigate the shoddily tiled space like a river system and lead to gaps where a few tiles are missing. Commentary from a local news station that runs on a 24 inch flat screen is interrupted every few minutes by a wailing warning alarm heard on submarines and navy vessels, indicating a car outside attempting to enter the neighborhood.
His tiny residence sits outside the country club neighborhood where homes, some nice one-story cottages and others sprawling, multiple story estates with tennis and basketball courts, usually sell for more than $1 million. But Mike simply turns his focus to the cars awaiting his gate-opening permission, and usually won’t let any cars pass without a friendly greeting.
“When I stop and look at it, this is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” Mike said. “The people are so nice and have always treated me well. I don’t care about their money. I want friendship.”
One aspect of Mike’s life is certain: he’s always on the move. Whether it’s constantly standing up to let cars past the gate or traveling the world, immobility has never seemed to be a variable in Mike’s endeavors. His sense of wanderlust was first fulfilled at the age of 19 by the United States Army.
Mike was deployed to Munich, Germany, after basic training and spent 26 months exploring the city. That is, until he learned how to throw a punch. With training and several matches, the young Mike Wilson became the Army’s amatuer light heavyweight champion, which acted as a vehicle for Mike’s ultimate dream: to see the world. From Munich, Mike saw Japan, Hawai’i, Greece and Turkey. Throughout his boxing career, his Army comrades gave him his signature nickname: Big Mike. Finally, in the mid 1960s, Mike returned to Oklahoma City. But settling down was never an option.
For Mike, with labor comes contentment. After returning to Oklahoma City, he enjoyed employment from various proprietors, including being one of the first paramedics in Oklahoma City, serving Henry Bellmon, the 18th Governor of Oklahoma, as a cook, and even working a short stint at the Walmart on north Penn Avenue in Oklahoma City. His resume goes on and on, and will continue to do so, according to him.
“I tried a little bit of everything,” Mike said. “I just like to work. I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a job no matter what the status, and I’ve always said as long as the job is respectable and I can make a decent living, I’m gonna keep it.”
Although Mike has stopped globetrotting, the companionship he amasses with the Gaillardia community more than makes up for it.
One of Mike’s co-workers, another guard named Doug Bittner, has keenly observed Mike’s relationship with the Gaillardia community. “He’s quite an outright individual,” Doug said. “He’s had a lot of personal tragedy…in the last seven or eight months. [But], he is so courteous to…the residents. And they make it very worthwhile to come to work.”
Mike’s contract with Alliance Security Services is up for renewal on December 11. As of now, he is unsure if he will re-sign to keep working at the guard post. Even though the average age of retirement in America is 63, according to a 2017 CNBC report, Big Mike won’t hesitate to strap on his gloves, throw haymakers at any internal or external obstacles, and soldier on for years to come.
“Once I leave here, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’m not going to quit working,” Mike said. “You might see me at Walmart again, but I don’t like to backtrack.”