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Steve Aschburner

Worthy careers have not been solidified with Hall induction for Chet Walker, Don Nelson and Bernard King.
Vernon Biever/Ned Dishman/Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Hall of Fame selection process leaves much to be desired

Posted Aug 12 2010 3:45PM

The only thing I want coming to me posthumously, rather than while I'm still alive to experience it, is my burial.

Let's assume that Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson and Maciel (Ubiratan) Pereira would have concurred. All three will receive the highest honor of their professional lives -- three, 23 and eight years too late, respectively -- Friday night in Springfield, Mass., when they are inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Apparently, that "Memorial" part doesn't apply only to old Doc Naismith (1861-1939), the Canadian gym teacher who invented the game.

We'll pause here to remind the Hall's Honors Committee, the gatekeepers of its secretive selection process, that Don Nelson is 70 years old. So is Chet Walker. Artis Gilmore will turn 61 next month. Spencer Haywood already is there. Bernard King is 53, one year older than Dennis Johnson at the time of his death and 17 years removed from scoring the 22,304th point of his pro/college career. Tex Winter? He's 88. Johnny (Red) Kerr is ... oops, he passed away 18 months ago. Would have turned 78 next week.

So while it contemplates ways to enshrine Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson a third or fourth time, the Hall of Fame's directors can start planning its future post-mortem after-parties. Black crepe and complimentary hankies (for dabbing at moist eyes) to be provided.

It's inevitable that a Hall of Fame in any sport would find it necessary from time to time to reach back across the years and honor someone whose brilliance -- and last breath -- came one, two or three generations earlier. Some people get overlooked, others grow in stature as their achievements and contributions gain context over time. Not every deserving candidate merits first-ballot induction, even if the Hall's nomination and enshrinement process technically allows for that. And there's no telling when each of us is going to, uh, get yanked from the ultimate game. Pete Maravich, for example, died at age 41; fortunately, he made it to Springfield just months earlier in 1987.

But the Naismith Hall's opaque and closely held selection process instills zero confidence that other greats of the game, particularly at the NBA -- and ABA -- level, won't have to be represented by their widows, children and pals.

Why was it that Dennis Johnson was more deserving 20 years after his playing days ended than five, 10 or even 16, when he could have experienced this honor? Gus Johnson died at 48 from a brain tumor but still had been done as an NBA rim-rocker for 14 years. Pereira, the greatest center in Brazil's history and known as "The King" long before LeBron James pretended to the throne, grabbed his medals (eight of them in the Olympics, World Championships and Pan American Games) in the 1960s and '70s. He was 58 when he died in 2002.

Disclosure time: This isn't just as hand-wringer over the players, coaches and contributors who get their proudest moments belatedly. That's just the most poignant way of calling into question the Hall's lack of transparency, its refusal to explain a hodge-podge history of decisions and non-decisions and its resistance to change.

Among the shrines dedicated to the three major U.S. sports, the Naismith joint -- enjoying perhaps its grandest annual induction week ever at the moment -- is the most confounding in the way it bestows its highest honor. Baseball's Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y., has relied since its inception on a motley and contentious crew of baseball writers to select its very special members; the number and demographics of the voters has grown and changed through the years but the process is pretty clear: Some 600 ballots are mailed out, a candidate must be named on 75 percent of those returned and many of the voters go public as a way to engage fans and readers in the debate.

Football's process at least is translucent. The Hall in Canton relies on a committee of media members representing its 32 cities, along with a dozen more at-large voters, and their names also are widely known. But basketball uses the star-chamber approach, a feeder system of committees responsible for fleshing out the annual list of nominees and then the 24-member Honors Committee that renders the final verdict. Eighteen "yea" votes are needed, members are rotated on and off the committee every few years and they all might as well be hooded, dropping black or white balls into a big bowl.

Why Dennis Johnson now? Why not Gilmore? What about Walker or Nelson? All legit questions. No one to ask. Even the occasional media members who are invited to participate are discouraged from talking or reporting about it -- and they rarely are even known to their peers who do talk and report as reps of the public.

It's especially confounding to NBA and ABA fans because the pro game in this country seems to be held hostage by -- or at least has taken a very PC-stance toward -- the college, international, women's and amateur bodies that share and often seem to dominate the Naismith Hall. Keep in mind, most of them have their own shrines already: The College Experience (NCAA) in Kansas City, the FIBA Hall (international) in Madrid and the WBHOF (women's) in Knoxville, Tenn. For some inexplicable reason, the most marketing-savvy league in professional sports history, the NBA, goes along as part of the group, Michael Jackson content to stay one of The Five. Instead, it settles for having a snazzy souvenir store on Fifth Avenue as its Mecca.

There is some hope. Maybe. At some point down the road. Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Hall, said soon after he was named to the position that he wanted to poke some windows into the process. The media should play a bigger role, he said. So too should the fans, in a balloting system that would be weighted and at least tries to recognize the new millennium of interactivity.

Full transparency? Colangelo backed away from that in February when the 2010 Hall nominees were announced over All-Star Weekend in Dallas. "In order to have a process that's clean, you can't have people know who's on the committee, because you don't want people soliciting votes,'' he said then. "I think that's really unhealthy. I'll know who's on the committee and it will be my judgment how we get the kind of transparency I believe we need.''

Um, OK, Dad.

Still, a little more insight and input into this closed process would qualify as improvement. The Professional Basketball Writers Association, of which I've been an officer since 2005, has a standing offer to Colangelo and the Hall to designate a media representative as a voter or even just as a witness. The PBWA would love to hear back from them in time for the 2011 Class' process. Colangelo has done wonders in the past in heading up the Phoenix Suns, the NBA's Board of Governors and most recently the USA Basketball operation, resulting in nothing less than a return to gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.

It would be nice if the next Naismith inductee described as being "late" is simply Dennis Rodman, who gets delayed on enshrinement night because he can't find shoes to match his gown.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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