The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has undergone two major overhauls.
It’s time for another one.
Not the dramatic architectural changes of 1985 and 2002, in which new buildings were constructed to accommodate the growth of the greatest sport in the world. No, this overhaul will ensure that sort of renovation won’t be needed again for quite some time.
It’s time for an NBA Hall of Fame.
Tonight’s ceremonies in Springfield will induct 12 new members to the Hall. And as has often been the case in recent years, there will be more head-scratchers than no-brainers.
Here’s some of the folks who have entered the Hall in just the last five years: Mirko Novosel, Pedro Ferrandiz, Cathy Rush, Maciel Pereira and Herb Magee. I’ll take Obscure Basketball Immortals for $200, Alex.
Also inducted in that time span were Van Chancellor, Vivian Stringer, Bob Hurley, Cynthia Cooper, Goose Tatum, Tara VanDerveer and Teresa Edwards. Those are certainly much more recognizable names – whose combined connection to the NBA totals zero games.
Meanwhile, truly legitimate candidates such as JoJo White, Sidney Moncrief and Maurice Cheeks remain on the wrong side of the velvet rope, wondering if their significant achievements at the unquestioned highest level of the game will ever be acknowledged.
Alongside the no-brainers of Reggie Miller, Don Nelson, Chet Walker and Mel Daniels, here is this year’s class of head-scratchers:
- Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes. Great college players. Above average NBA players. Not Hall of Famers.
- Hank Nichols. A long-time referee – in the NCAA.
- Nike chairman Phil Knight. Hunh?
- Katrina McClain. A truly great player – in the women’s college and international game.
- Lidia Alexeeva. Who?
- And the All-American Redheads, a team that does not include Matt Bonner, Robert Swift or or Brian Scalabrine.
Although it may appear otherwise, this is not an attempt to discredit the bodies of work of these folks on one of the greatest days of their lives. I’m sure there are people much older, smarter and more worldly than me who can effectively argue on behalf of each of them.
And you don’t even have to bother making a case for Don Barksdale, another of this year’s inductees. He was the first black player to be named an All-American, Olympian and All-Star, the sort of pioneer that mandates a historical wing in every Hall of Fame.
But when Miller and Nelson are enshrined alongside the likes of Sampson and Alexeeva, it can also be effectively argued that true basketball immortality has been devalued.
Years ago, I asked former longtime NBA coach and broadcaster Kevin Loughery about the Hall of Fame merits of Mark Jackson, who had ascended to second on the all-time assists list but had played in just one All-Star Game. Loughery spent several minutes pointing out the arguments for and against Jackson, then ended our chat with this gem.
“It doesn’t matter. Everybody gets in now.”
It sure seems that way.
Sampson and Wilkes played a combined 1,284 games, or two less than Sam Perkins. They have one All-NBA selection between them. They never led the league in any category. They never finished higher than 10th in any MVP balloting.
Their ability to perform at a truly great level ended when they left college, where Sampson was a three-time Player of the Year and Wilkes was a two-time All-American and NCAA champion. If both had chosen grad school over the NBA, they would still be worthy of the Hall of Fame — the National College Basketball Hall of Fame, which opened in 2006 in Kansas City.
If Sampson and Wilkes can ride their college resumes into Springfield, who else is under consideration? Tyler Hansbrough? Joakim Noah? Kevin Houston? Should we really be reserving immortality for players whose level of greatness was obviously diminished by the level of competition?
McClain also is worthy of the Hall of Fame – the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, which opened in 1999 in Knoxville, Tennessee. A two-time All-American, Olympic gold medalist and world champion, she was inducted in 2006.
And Alexeeva is Hall of Fame material – the FIBA Hall of Fame, which opened in 1991 in Madrid, Spain. Having never lost a major international competition in 22 years as coach of the Russian women’s team, she was inducted in 2007. She also was an inaugural inductee to the Women’s Hall.
Knight built Nike into an omnipresent international brand. However, his company also makes footwear, apparel and equipment for football, baseball, track and just about every other sport. Does that make him eligible for those Halls as well? Perhaps he belongs in the American National Business Hall of Fame, which opened in 1972 and boasts Ray Kroc, Walt Disney and Sam Walton as members.
The mere fact that the college, women’s and international games each have opened a Hall of Fame in the last generation illustrates the need to honor those whose greatness, while undeniable, does not transcend the sport at its highest level.
That is the NBA, whose players and coaches continue to be evaluated alongside these inductees, rather than above them.
Is that elitist? If it isn’t, it should be. Today more than ever, the NBA towers above all other levels of the game in both skill and scope. Its players have never been better and its global reach has never been greater. It is folly to compare any achievement in any other level of basketball to the accomplishments of NBA players, coaches, executives and administrators.
Instead of implementing a hard salary cap or lowering the age limit on the Olympics, this should be David Stern’s coda as commissioner. Forget the money pits of the NBA Store, WNBA and international offices and instead smartly fund, plan and construct a shrine whose exclusivity befits basketball’s sole stratosphere.
A place that doesn’t value a sneaker salesman above Sidney Moncrief.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.