Bill “Missile” Austin is Missing
Bill “Missile” Austin earned his nickname for his headfirst approach to the hoops at Live Oak Park, and to everything else he undertook, including sailing
by Paul Teetor
When Bill Austin first showed up at the Live Oak Park 3-on-3 basketball games 20 years ago, one of the regulars noticed his positive, fast-forward energy, and quickly gave him a nickname: Missile.
It stuck because Austin never stopped moving, and had an angular, head-first way of heading to the hoop, with or without the ball. If he was coming your way, you better be ready for an explosion of energy, for a guided missile attack.
There are several criteria for a good sports nickname: does it fit? Does it capture something truly unique about the player? Does it stick? Does everyone just naturally start using it? And, most important of all, does the player embrace the nickname?
Austin’s nickname checked every single box – especially the last one, the most important one. Indeed, Austin reveled in his new nickname, even introducing himself as Missile when new players would show up.
Some regulars never even knew his real name. He was just Missile, the man of perpetual motion, and a laser-guided jump shot to go with it.
“He absolutely loved that nickname,” his daughter Mackenzie Austin said. “He was so proud of it.”
Off the court, he lived his life the same way, like a human heat-seeking missile: always moving, coming up with new ideas, always looking for new challenges, new opportunities and new ways to expand his own world and make life better for his friends and neighbors.
“He really cared about people, about his friends and neighbors, even about people he didn’t know personally, but had heard needed help,” said Chris “C-Pal” Palisan, the boys varsity basketball Head Coach at Oxford Academy in Cypress, and a long-time Live Oak regular. “For him, helping people out and being generous with them wasn’t about showing off his money. It made him happy to share his good fortune, to share his love of life.”
Austin’s good fortune wasn’t handed to him, like so many trust fund babies who wake up on third base thinking they hit a triple. It was the result of hard work, a true entrepreneurial spirit, a nose for good opportunities and a high emotional IQ that made people want to do business with him – and then hang out with him, and have a couple of beers after their business was done.
Over the 30 years that he lived in Hermosa Beach, Austin ran a very successful export-import business, a bike parts business, and most recently a boat charter business. In his spare time he did real estate, and helped coach his daughters’ basketball teams.
He was a man of many names besides Missile. Different friends had different names for him.
And that was the thing about Austin: he had so many friends.
He had the basketball friends who called him Missile.
He had sailing friends, who called him Captain Bill. He had an easy way of delegating nautical tasks as they came up, framed as friendly suggestions, or polite requests rather than captain’s orders.
“I didn’t know anything about sailing,” said Ray Hanan, one of his many best friends. “But when he took me out on his boat he showed me how to do stuff that needed to be done. He made it easy for me.”
And he had party friends, who liked to drink with him, and watch sports with him, and were always happy to accompany him to his beloved Clippers games.
He had business friends, who knew that he was always ready with a donation for a good cause, and had plenty of creative ideas to help those in need.
He had family friends through his two lovely, high-achieving daughters, Mackenzie and Shailyn.
He had neighbor friends, people lucky enough to live near him and see him on a near-daily basis. To Hermosa neighbors like Kelly and Sean Mulvihill, who lived right across from him, he was just plain Bill.
Good friends are the rare jewels of life: difficult to find and impossible to replace.
Austin was one of those rare jewels.
That’s why it was such a shock to so many people throughout the Beach Cities when the news started spreading back in mid-March: Missile is missing.
An Invitation to the Baja Ha-Ha
Ray Hanan, a 48-year-old physical therapist, originally from Wisconsin, was part of the Live Oak Ballers, a group of middle-aged guys who often hung out at Missile’s Hermosa house to watch sports and have a few beers. They also went to Clippers games and had the kind of close-knit camaraderie that most people reluctantly watch slip out of their lives once they graduate from high school or college.
“Our personalities just meshed,” Hanan said. “Missile made whoever he was with feel like they were his best friend. I think that’s why he had so many friends.”
Because he was used to Missile’s generosity, Hanan wasn’t surprised when he invited him to come along on a fun boat trip he was planning for something called the Baja Ha-Ha that takes place every fall. He would be traveling on his 44-foot catamaran “The Kat,” along with Missile’s little dog Stogie and a couple of other friends.
Austin explained that the formal name was The Baja Ha-Ha Cruisers Rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas.
Austin said the trip would cover 750 miles, with both sail and power boats making the journey. It wasn’t exactly a race, although some skippers took it more seriously than others, and pushed to have their crew arrive in Cabo sooner than others in their class.
Austin assured him they would be among the more relaxed participants. The idea was to have fun, drink a couple of beers, and soak in the sun along the way.
After thinking it over, Hanan got into the spirit of adventure and accepted the invitation. “I figured I’m not a sailor, but at least I can wash the dishes on the boat. What the hell, I’ll do it, take a little risk and have some fun with it.”
In late October he flew down to San Diego to join Missile, Stogie and three other friends.
“The next morning we shoved off, and sailed over-night for the next three nights,” Hanan said. “Sailing at night was such a spiritual experience. That alone made the trip worthwhile.”
It took 12 days to get to Cabo San Lucas, with three stops along the way.
“Every day Missile would find something to fix on the boat,” Hanan recalled. “He never stopped tinkering with it.”
Hanan had his own berth.
“That first night I was looking out my window at the water splashing up on the side of the boat and the moon shining down on us. It was truly awesome.”
They fishing during the day and watched out for the other 150 boats participating in the Baja Ha-Ha.
“You could see all different kinds of boats making the trip,” he said. “Sometimes we were out to sea as far as 50 or 60 miles. The waves were huge.”
Missile’s thoughtfulness extended to Stogie’s comfort, Hanan said.
“He was worried that Stogie would hold his bowels out at sea, so he brought along a strip of fake green turf, hoping that Stogie would use it to relieve himself,” he said. “But at one stretch we didn’t hit land for three days and Stogie refused to use that fake turf. When we finally hit land Stogie booked it ashore and popo five times in five minutes.”
A couple of days after arriving in Cabo, on November 12, Hanan had to fly back to Hermosa for his physical therapist job. Missile and Stogie stayed behind to enjoy the mild Mexican winter while sailing around the Sea of Cortez for the next few months.
Grown men crying together
Four months later Palisan was startled when he saw Missile’s name pop up on his Facebook news feed with the headline “Marina del Rey Man Missing in Mexico.” He knew Missile had been living on his boat in Marina del Rey for the last couple of years after selling his Hermosa house.
He read the brief news story with growing dread. Bill’s boat had washed up on the shore of Loreto Bay near Nopolo on March 12 with Stogie still aboard but no sign of Bill.
“It all happened within about 10 minutes. As soon as I read it on Facebook, Scotty Talbot called to ask what I knew,” Palisan said. “We only talked for two minutes, but when we hung up we both were crying like babies. We couldn’t believe it was true but we knew it looked bad for Missile.”
The same emotions – shock, denial, disbelief – were flowing all over the Beach Cities that March morning.
“It was a real gut punch for us,” Kelly Mulvihill said. “The shock and sadness came in waves.”
His two daughters, Mackenzie, a student at Stanford Law School, and Shailyn, a forestry student at Yale, quickly organized a search party and headed for Mexico.
“Each day that went by with no news of him being found I felt worse and worse about it,” Palisan said.
He Googled Missile’s name every day, and emailed his daughters. On March 18, he received an email back from Shai.
“Thank you so much, been really busy here on the ground in Mexico,” she wrote. “Please know it means a lot to me that you reached out. Please send any positive energy you can our way. Thank you for being a great friend to our dad.”
Hanan, like many of Missile’s friends following the unfolding story, was initially tormented as his imagination ran wild.
“I had visions of Missile being swept off his boat and thrashing around in the ocean as he watched his boat and his dog disappear over the horizon, thinking about his friends and family that he would never see again,” Hanan said.
Nine days later Austin’s body was found by Mexican Marines off the coast of an island called Isla del Carmen – six miles from Loreto. The autopsy revealed that at least he didn’t have to go through that nightmare scenario that Hanan and so many others had visualized.
“It turned out to be a scuba diving accident,” Mackenzie Austin said. “It looks like he was working under the boat and something went wrong. We think he died instantly.”
Kelly Mulvihill said that detail was a relief.
“At least he didn’t suffer like we all thought he did, drifting in the ocean by himself,” she said. “We took some comfort in that.”
Sharing is caring
The news of Austin’s passing triggered an outpouring of emotion, but also an outpouring of stories about how he had always been looking for a way to help people, for ways to share his good fortune.
For some of his friends, it was sharing his love of the Clippers,
“I’ll always remember the Clippers games he took a bunch of us to, many times,” said Palisan. “Missile had three season tickets that were front row, corner of the court, just fantastic seats. And whenever he invited us he never asked for a dollar, it was always just taking his friends along to share the good times. More than once, he just gave me the three tickets when he couldn’t go and said take whomever you want.”
One game in particular stands out, Palisan said, when he and Hanan, another Live Oak regular, accompanied Missile to a Clippers game.
“Missile went to the concession stands, and came back with beers, hot dogs and soft pretzels. We tried to give him money, but he wouldn’t hear of it,” he said. “Then he reached into a bag and handed each of us an official Clippers V-neck golf pull-over, a beautiful piece of clothing. He was so happy about giving them to us. Later I realized mine was two sizes too big but I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
For Scott Talbot, the commissioner of the Live Oak games, Missile’s generosity was on display in the annual open-house Thanksgiving feast he held every year at his house on 24th Street.
“He would deep-fry a big turkey, and he had everything you could ever want to eat spread out on the table,” Talbot said. “You could drop in whenever it was convenient. Come for five minutes or five hours, it didn’t matter to him. He was just happy to have all his friends gathered in one spot for the holiday.”
The highlight of the Thanksgiving party was a darts tournament that Austin held in his garage after everyone had stuffed themselves into a near-coma.
“My dad would spend the whole year with me and my sister Shai in that garage, practicing throwing darts with us,” Mackenzie Austin said. “Just so we could compete in that Thanksgiving dart game. All year long we practiced for that one day.”
For long-time neighbors Sean and Kelly Mulvihill, whose kids grew up with Austin’s two daughters right across the street, Austin’s generosity was best expressed by an invitation to a concert at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center last summer.
“Bill invited me to see his favorite band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, with him last August,” Sean Mulvihill said. “He only got tickets, for him and me, because my wife Kelly had never heard of the band. But Kelly showed up with a bottle of champagne, and Bill said no problem, why don’t you come along with us too.”
The concert was a memorable experience, not so much for the music, but for how Austin reacted to the music.
“When they started playing his favorite song, he got up and danced all by himself. He danced like no one was watching, like he didn’t care what anybody thought,” Mulvihill said. “It was the freest I’d ever seen anyone, and I envied him so much. I just couldn’t be that free. To me it was a symbol of how he lived his whole life. That’s why people were so drawn to him.”
A large legacy
William Walter Austin was an Army brat, born in Colorado and raised in Brentwood, Tennessee. A few years after he graduated from the University of Tennessee, he visited some friends living in Hermosa Beach.
He moved here in 1992.
“He told me he fell in love with the beach cities the minute he saw the ocean,” Hanan said. “He knew he wanted to live here the rest of his life.”
He died at age 60.
“He was such a free spirit, much freer than any of the rest of us,” Hanan said. “But instead of us living vicariously through him, he took us along for the ride.”
In his 30 years here he left a large legacy built of small acts of kindness, and generosity practiced on a daily basis.
For neighbors like Kelly Mulvihill, it was something as simple as a used set of golf clubs that Bill gave to her young son Ethan.
“That got Ethan started in golf, and he went on to play golf for Mira Costa,” Kelly said. “It’s become a lifetime sport for him. Without Bill in our lives, I don’t think that would ever have happened.”
For Sean Mulvihill, it’s a weathered leather cowboy hat that Bill often wore on his adventures, a hat that he asked Mulvihill to hold for him when he sold his house and started living on his boat.
“I still have it, hanging in my library,” he said. “It reminds me every day of the bright light that Bill was.”
For Palisan, it’s the too-big Clippers pull-over that Missile gave him, the same one that he put in his closet when he got home from the Clippers game.
“I never wore it until he passed away back in March,” he said. “Now I wear it all the time in honor of Bill.”
And for his oldest daughter Mackenzie, it’s the accumulated memories of 28 wonderful years.
“On Sunday mornings he would cook us pancakes and then take us to Live Oak Park. We would run around while he played basketball with his buddies,” she said. “I feel like we grew up at Live Oak. Those were golden days.”
Then there was the Rube Goldberg contraption he invented to fry a turkey at one of his Thanksgiving parties.
“Instead of putting the turkey in a deep fryer, he positioned a ladder above a pot of boiling oil,” she said. “Then he lowered the turkey by tying a rope to its legs, and threw the rope over the ladder, creating a pulley. He called it the Turkey Derrick, and he was very proud of it. The cooked turkey looked totally burnt to a crisp on the outside, but inside it was juicy and delicious.”
Sean Mulvihill recalled one day he mentioned that he was going to play with his band in Indio. Austin’s response revealed a lot about his philosophy on life – and death.
“Bill said, great, I’ll fly you guys out there, cause he had a single-engine Cessna,” he said. “I asked him why he was always going all over the world in his boat and his plane. He looked at me, and said ‘Don’t die with your boat in the driveway.’