NEW ORLEANS -- The ring’s not necessarily the thing, but there is no denying that it is a thing for the four NBA players to emerge Saturday as Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame finalists for the Class of 2017.
Among the candidates who advanced from the North American committee (the group that handles most NBA and NCAA nominees), Tim Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Sidney Moncrief and Chris Webber all enjoyed memorable, occasionally dazzling careers. By most measures -- from statistics or impact, from longevity to highlight-reels or some combination thereof -- all can mount persuasive cases for enshrinement in the Springfield, Mass., museum.
But if there were a ring or three within that group, Hardaway, Moncrief and Webber might already be in and McGrady would be considered a favorite in his first year of eligibility.
Instead, they’ll wait along with the rest -- seven coaches from both men’s and women’s basketball, one referee and two more women’s finalists -- who will be considered for election this year. The Class of 2017 will be announced April 3 at the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., and the Hall’s enshrinement ceremony is set for Sept. 8.
Moncrief, a coltish wing player for 12 NBA seasons (mostly with the Milwaukee Bucks), knew coming into the news conference Saturday at the Smoothie King Center how much value is placed on championships. More so in this league, perhaps, than any other among the major pro sports. So he did his research.
“I looked it up this morning: I came in the league with Magic and Bird,” said Moncrief, who joined Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as NBA rookies in 1979-80, was a five-time All-Star and won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1983 and 1984. “Between us, we have eight rings. Magic has his five, Bird has three, I have zero.
“When I played we had the great Lakers teams of the ‘80s, Boston and their great teams in the ‘80s -- and Philadelphia! So we had some pretty stiff competition.”
Whether their careers butted up against Johnson, Bird and Isiah Thomas or they were unlucky enough to have been born in the same era of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant, whether they never had the right mix of teammates or missed out on the serendipity of good health, the four terrific players all have one or more fingers that are barren of the special jewelry.
McGrady, for example, was a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champ, but his career was hobbled by injuries – either to him and to teammates such as Grant Hill and Yao Ming. As a result, none of McGrady’s teams ever advanced beyond the first round, a pattern that stuck to his reputation.
So count him among those who feel the ring/no ring divide in the NBA is an unfair one.
“I think it’s you guys, the media, who are messing these [younger] guys up about competing or -- how can I put this? -- it’s like these guys feel they have to win a championship or they don’t feel they’re completed as a player,” McGrady said.
After calling his selection as a finalist “not even a dream come true” because he didn’t know what the Hall of Fame was as a young player, McGrady spoke of the burden some of the league’s best players shoulder, like it or not.
“For me, I just don’t think winning a championship solidifies you as a player,” McGrady said. “Because everybody is not lucky to be in those situations. I look at some of the great players I competed against. I look at Kevin Garnett, I look at Paul Pierce. Respectively they were great players but [when] they came together, obviously, Hall of Fame guys and they won the  championship.”
A number of Hall of Famers sat on stage as the finalists’ names were read, including George Gervin, Dominique Wilkins, Willis Reed, Rick Barry and others. Only Reed and Barry among them earned championships.
“The last guy on a championship team,” Gervin said, “may not play 20 minutes the whole year. But he’ll get a ring, y’know? People have their own version of what they think make a person’s career.”
Said McGrady: “So it doesn’t define me as a player. Would it have completed my career to have won a championship? Absolutely. But I don’t think it defines me.
“I put it like this: Everybody can’t be a Hall of Famer. Anybody can win a championship, if you understand what I’m saying. Not having the luxury playing with a Shaquille O’Neal or a Chris Webber, at some point your individual place will be honored. Here I am being a nominee. Now I haven’t gotten out of the first round, but look where I am.”
Hardaway and Webber both were All-Stars five times. The former, a previous finalist, was not present Saturday but is hopeful of joining old teammates Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond of Golden State’s “Run T.M.C.” era in the Hall (along with fellow Warriors Sarunas Marciulionis and coach Don Nelson).
The latter was the anchor of strong Sacramento Kings teams that butted heads with the Lakers and Spurs for a half dozen seasons in the early 2000s. Webber accepts that he’ll forever be on the unfortunate side of the ring/no ring gulch -- even his college career, as part of Michigan’s culture-altering “Fab Five,” never produced the hardware he sought.
“The great thing about sports is, no guarantees,” Webber said. “If I would have gone into this with a guaranteed championship, where I was knew it was coming at the end of the process… to me, there’s no sports without perseverance, without getting back up, without being unselfish.
“From calling the [notorious, non-existent Wolverines] timeout to [Lakers clutch forward Robert] Horry hitting the shot [that beat Sacramento in 2002], that’s part of sports. You can’t be around to embrace the best moments if you can’t embrace the worst moments.”
That said, Webber said he prefers a more generous gauge be used in weighing players’ respective merits. The one used by his peers, in fact.
“We as players, in our private moments when we hang out, we talk about who had game, not about who won championships,” Webber said. “We talk about who had game, the great moments, not who was fortunate enough to be drafted into the right situation to win a championship.
“Karl Malone, I grew up loving him. If he had won one with the Lakers [in 2004], would that have made it better for him? No. I respect him because he held Utah on his back and played against the Lakers [with] how many Hall of Famers on their teams and the great player of all-time in Kareem? So is he supposed to feel bad for not winning?”
The other finalists from the North American committee are: NBA referee Hugh Evans, former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Texas high school coach Robert Hughes and NCAA coaches Rollie Massimino, Bo Ryan and Bill Self.
The women’s committee finalists are: Rebecca Lobo, coach Muffet McGraw, coach Kim Mulkey and, as a team entry, Wayland Baptist University.
“Direct-elect” inductees from the four categories with one round of voting -- Early African-American Pioneers, International, Contributor and Veterans -- will be revealed at the Final Four, along with those who make the cut from Saturday’s North American and women’s finalists.
For the record, each enshrinee to the Naismith Hall is presented with a commemorative ring. For the four NBA players involved, that could make up a bit for the ones they missed.
“I don’t want to think about it, but yes,” Webber said. “It would be my baby, it would be my wife. And I love my wife -- it would mean everything, she knows that. So I don’t want to imagine what that moment would feel like, because I’ve never had a moment like that in my life.”
Sager, Araton win Gowdy honors
Longtime NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager and New York Times sportswriter Harvey Araton were named recipients of the 2017 Curt Gowdy Media Awards. Sager, best known for his sense of humor and remarkable wardrobe, earned the Gowdy award for electronic media posthumously after passing in December. Araton spent 25 years as a basketball writer and columnist at the Times after spending time on the Knicks beat while with the New York Post and New York Daily News.
Goldberg, Rowe honored as Bunn recipients
Michael H. Goldberg, the executive director of the NBA coaches association for more than 35 years before his death in January, and New England coaching legend Donald “Dee” Rose were named as winners of 2017 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Awards. The Bunn awards are considered to be the most prestigious Hall honor short of enshrinement.
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