SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – There were legit reasons for the folks peering down from the balconies Thursday afternoon to know who Charlie Scott was.
For one, Scott in his day was a super-quick, shot-hoisting point guard who averaged 25 points and 22.6 field-goal attempts in his first three NBA seasons for Phoenix, back in the league’s pre-3-pointer days. For another, Scott was the first black scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina, adding a little extra cultural cachet to his story.
But alas, Scott played his last NBA game more than 38 years ago, back in March 1980 when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were still revving up. Time waits for no man, we were told both by Chaucer and The Rolling Stones, and Scott was realistic as he stepped to a podium at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I played so long ago,” the still slender, still spirited 69-year-old said, “a lot of people don’t even remember when I played. But what I can do is, when they ask, ‘When did I join the Hall of Fame?’ I can say, ‘Do you know Grant Hill? Do you know Steve Nash? Well, they were in my class.’ ”
The comment drew laughs throughout the vast room and all along the stage, filled as it was with other members of the Hall’s Class of 2018. Set for their official enshrinement ceremony at Springfield’s Symphony Hall Friday night, the group of inductees represented basketball at almost every level, across all categories.
There were recent NBA superstars: Hill, Nash, Ray Allen. There were old-school guys: Scott, Maurice Cheeks. Charles (Lefty) Driesell, the longtime coach at Maryland and three other schools, represented the NCAA world. Katie Smith and Tina Thompson were on hand as legends of the WNBA and women’s basketball in general.
If you only knew Dino Radja from his four seasons with the Boston Celtics from 1993-97, you missed most of the Croatian forward’s story (three consecutive EuroLeague titles, a multiple MVP winner, a decorated Olympian and more). Rick Welts, president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, was there as a longtime NBA contributor. Rod Thorn was right next to him as an even longer-time contributor, dating back to his days as the No. 2 pick in the 1963 draft, his stints with teams in vacated markets (Baltimore, St. Louis, Seattle), his status as the GM who drafted Michael Jordan, his work as a Nets executive and his role as the NBA’s top cop in doling out fines and suspensions for much of Commissioner David Stern’s tenure.
Two others were absent Friday: point guard Jason Kidd was sick, the crowd was told, though the Hall was hopeful Kidd would arrive for Friday’s ceremony. And Ora Mae Washington, a pioneer in women’s basketball who retired in the 1940s, was being honored posthumously.
What was clear, though, was how varied and how diverse this Class of 2018 was. And it happened organically, because basketball remains a meritocratic endeavor, with Hall candidates for the most part emerging organically.
“It’s really incredible to see people who impacted the game in different ways, in different places and in different times,” Nash told NBA.com later. “It’s a great fabric of our sport. I think it’s a cool addition to the whole process that it’s not just [NBA] players.”
Said Smith, the 2008 WNBA MVP, two-time league champion, three-time Olympic gold winner and current coach of the New York Liberty: “It’s very special that we’re all in it together. Those who are in basketball, it’s wild, because there’s always been an appreciation between all of us.”
The all-things-to-all-enshrinees nature of the Naismith Hall has drawn criticism in the past. Trying to properly honor the legends of the NBA alongside still-active college coaches, alongside ABA alumni and international players whose games weren’t available even on short-wave radio … well, it strikes some as a hodge-podge without consistent, discernible criteria for election.
It isn’t an easy sell to an American NBA fan to explain why Radja belongs while Jack Sikma and Sidney Moncrief wait and wait. Or why John Calipari has been in since 2015 but Johnny (Red) Kerr and Rudy Tomjanovich can’t crack the coaching honorees.
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It’s not this way in baseball, where the Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y., is all about the major leagues (and their roots, meriting Negro League additions for the past five decades). The shrines to which NFL and NHL players aspire also are very specific to those U.S. or North American leagues, respectively.
This one is different. And while some still consider it a weakness, the scenes Thursday and again Friday night make a pretty persuasive argument that this way is more correct. And natural.
“Basketball’s one of the few areas where you have the opportunity to make it a worldly event,” Scott said. “Everybody [elsewhere] doesn’t play baseball, everybody doesn’t play football. So those Halls of Fame are confined to particular circumstances. But basketball has different [facets], and I think each one should be recognized, as they are.”
Said Welts, whose NBA career began as a ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1970s: “That’s one thing we feel is special about basketball, how inclusive it is, how global it is, how the classes tend to be so varied, how it brings people together.
“It is, in fact, what sports is all about. It doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter what your background is. If you do your job, on the court or off, you have an opportunity to have a wonderful life with basketball as your career.”
You are showing kids that you can have a role model in every category. You can have a set target in your mind for what you want to do."
They all are in this together, with no kids table for the amateur, overseas or women’s representatives relative to the NBA stars. For example, Radja played against Hill, Nash, Kidd and Allen. Even though he never was an NBA All-Star, he’ll be enshrined on the same stage, same night as those guys.
“You are showing kids that you can have a role model in every category,” Radja said. “You can have a set target in your mind for what you want to do. One thing you hear from all these [inductees] is ‘hard work, hard work, hard work.’ That’s the basic message you want to send to any kid who wants to do anything in sports.”
There is a talent knows talent, players respect players vibe to all this, too. Many NBA players embraced the WNBA from the moment it took its baby steps as an enterprise in the late 1990s.
Thompson, for instance said that a number of players who either played for the Rockets or spent offseason time in Houston – Cuttino Mobley, Steve Francis, James Posey, Antonio McDyess, Sam Cassell – regularly attended Comets’ games. She said Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, a season-ticket holder to Lynx games, was one of her most ardent hecklers.
“You see it now with social media, with young guys in the NBA and how they support the WNBA,” Thompson said. “That’s where LeBron James is probably a throwback to the players who supported the WNBA very early on. He is an absolute student of the game. He’s not just familiar with the NBA and its history. He knows high schoolers. He knows sixth graders. He tweets out something about the WNBA or the fact that he saw a game and an amazing play … it’s what he is.”
There’s a palpable sense of appreciation, education and camaraderie that goes on at this weekend’s events, with big names from the sport’s many threads knitting together.
Consider that eight-time NBA All-Star Nash, with his Canadian roots and despite his Phoenix connection, knew little or nothing about Scott – a five-time NBA/ABA All-Star and NBA champ with Boston in 1976 – until they were named Hall classmates at the Final Four in San Antonio last spring.
“The education of this, not only of your classmates but the people all over the Hall of Fame, is one of the funnest parts,” Nash said. “To be able to recognize different people for their unique skill sets and personalities and stories.”
Thompson, Smith and Radja were as tickled to be sharing the stage with the NBA stars as those guys were thrilled to have them there.
“There is a change in the verbiage,” said Thompson, the first-ever WNBA draft pick in 1997. “It is now the best basketball players in the world. There’s no other Hall of Fame that has that [claim].”
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