Posted Aug 13 2010 11:14PM
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- They stopped on the way to forever to live in the moment, the way Scottie Pippen paused and Jerry West remembered.
They stopped on the way to official basketball immortality to be very mortal, the way Karl Malone dabbed and Gary Johnson thanked.
They stopped the rancor. In the first enshrinement since Michael Jordan hijacked the ceremony with a petty verbal hit list, in the summer of labor negotiations and The Decision, eight individuals and two U.S. Olympic teams were enshrined in the Hall of Fame on a Friday night that will be remembered for heart and, thankfully, the positive emotions.
The personalities were the stars more than the players, which is saying something because the players may have been the greatest collection of talent in one place since the NBA's 50th anniversary team was assembled at 1997 All-Star weekend. The way Magic Johnson ticked off the greatness of the 1992 Olympic roster in full sermon mode. The way Larry Bird trash talked the West-Oscar Robertson squad of the '60 Summer Games in the debate over the better team. The way Malone cried and used a handkerchief on his eyes before delivering the first words of his moving acceptance speech. And the way Gary Johnson appreciated being there on behalf of brother Dennis -- more touching than boasting.
And that was just at the ceremony itself. A few hours earlier, at a gathering that was part press conference and part pep rally at the museum a few blocks from the night's pageantry at Symphony Hall, Donna Johnson, D.J.'s widow, broke down in the first sentence of trying to say what the induction would have meant to her husband.
Gary got through his speech later, joined on stage by Donna and Bird, the man who called Dennis Johnson the greatest teammate he ever had. But Gary had tears.
"I love you guys," he told an audience packed with NBA legends. "I love you guys for loving my brother."
There was a lot of that kind of embrace.
Pippen, the former Bulls great, was near the end of his acceptance speech, Jordan off his shoulder after presenting him in a non-speaking role, when he said of his career, "It was a great ride." Then Pippen, choked up, paused to gather himself. He paused for a full 10 seconds, holding firm at the lectern, before finishing.
"For all of this, I say, 'Thank God. And thank you.' "
West, speaking on behalf of the '60 Olympic team, with Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Walt Bellamy and most of the rest of the roster on stage with him, was deeply moved and tearing up talking about his brother David killed in the Korean war. It had been known to anyone around the Logo that the loss still cuts deep. Now, it was known to everyone.
"He was the one in my family who paid attention to me," West said. "I was recently in Korea on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice. I'd always wished he had an opportunity to see me [win the Olympic gold medal] because that was one of the most significant things in my life. To my teammates, I just want you to know how much I appreciated you treating some kid from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, who was really wet behind the ears, as an equal. And more importantly, to have an opportunity to play with you guys was really, really special."
The '60 squad remembered their great coach who had passed, Pete Newell. The '92 roster, remembered theirs, Chuck Daly.
Malone was destined to be emotional. There's no way he wouldn't be, the way the great power forward led with exposed nerve endings as often as flying knees while thundering down the lane to finish. But this was the Mailman's guts on full display, about a year and a half after Jazz owner Larry Miller died and on the seventh anniversary of his mother's passing.
He was close to both -- Malone and Miller sometimes clashed because they were so alike, stubborn and emotional, but also genuine and very generous -- and that was absolutely going to come out in this milestone moment of his life.
"I want to thank the NBA for giving this snotty-nose kid from Louisiana an opportunity to play the game," Malone said. "I hope I did it the way my peers did it before me. I didn't do anything but try to play hard. I didn't have a motive. It wasn't about me. It never was about me. It's not about me tonight. It's about a lot of other people. I think it's known that I love the outdoors and I love to hunt. When you're out there in the field, everything's gotta be aligned just perfect. So for me to be here tonight, everything had to be perfect. I had to get drafted by Utah, had to play with a point guard like John Stockton, had to be coached by Jerry Sloan and Frank Layden.
"I want to say to all the guys that I played with and I played against, 'Thank you. Thank you for making me a better person and a better player.' These guys here [in the audience] are also great people. You don't know all the things they do behind the scenes. And last but not least, I would like to say thanks to Larry Miller for believing in me. He's not with us now. To the Jazz organization, thank you for believing in me. I might not say it right all the time. I might not have did it right, like you wanted me to, all the time. But I was respectful the way I wanted to do it and tried to do it.
"And, I would like to say this was" -- three-second pause for composure -- "the seventh year [of] my mom passing today."
Loud applause of support.
"It's ironic that it was seven years today I am being inducted into the Hall of Fame.... I just want to say that I'm here because of her. Thanks for coming. I always tried to do it the right way. I tell all my friends and family, try to live life the way you want to be remembered, try to leave life better than you found it, and what good is success if you're not willing to share it. And also, I would like to say once again, it was not about me. It was about trying to do something to make everybody proud. Love you guys, thank you, and I'm honored."
The crowd thanked him back, appreciating the career and the words from the heart, the way the emotions didn't stop.
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