Hall of Fame: Class of 2021
2021 Class made multiple stops en route to Hall of Fame
Trades and free agency afforded different, winding journeys for Springfield's latest group of basketball legends.
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – For a small group of the NBA’s greatest players, the trip to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is by express: One franchise, one team, whole career. Two of the biggest names in NBA history, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, went in precisely that way in the Class of 2020’s belated enshrinement in May.
Bryant was the Lakers, Duncan was the Spurs, cornerstones of those franchises for most or all of their time in the league and instantly recognizable as such. Name the guy or name the team, it doesn’t matter – the word-association test works equally well forward or backward. Think of one, can’t help but think of the other.
Four months later, things aren’t nearly that neat and streamlined for the NBA members of the Class of 2021.
All six of the players who will be enshrined with 10 others in a starry ceremony Saturday night at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., logged time with two, three or more teams.
Oh, the word association stuff works for a few of them in spite of the games they played elsewhere. Paul Pierce is a Celtic first and foremost, having spent 82% of his career (1,102 of 1,343 games) suiting up for Boston.
Those 241 games Pierce played near the end for Brooklyn, Washington and the LA Clippers? They seemed a little like Joe Montana wrapping up in Kansas City or Wayne Gretzky with the Blues.
When you think of Ben Wallace, you think of Detroit because that’s where he spent his prime, that’s where he won his four Defensive Player of the Year awards, that’s where his presence and leadership helped the Pistons earn their championship rings in 2004. Fact is, though, Wallace played nearly 40% of his games (433 of 1,088) playing for Washington, Orlando, Chicago and Cleveland either early or late in his career.
Then there’s Toni Kukoc, a direct-elect inductee by the Hall’s international committee. He played barely half of his games for Chicago (436 of 846) but you’d be hard-pressed to find folks who don’t associate him with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and the rest of the ‘90s dynasty Bulls. Not Milwaukee, not Philadelphia, not Atlanta.
For two other 2021 enshrinees – Chris Bosh and Bobby Dandridge – their two-team careers were split in such a way that both pieces carry weight, allowing fans from those respective franchises to lay claim. Bosh played 509 of his 893 regular-season games with the Toronto Raptors, who hoped he would be their Bryant or Duncan by delivering titles without moving. But Bosh hooked up in Miami with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, accepted third-wheel status, won two rings and reached four Finals while making his other 384 appearances.
Dandridge won a championship in Milwaukee (1971) and another in Washington (1978). He insinuated himself into the histories of both though he spent far more time with the Bucks (73.7%, 618 of 839 games).
And then there’s Chris Webber, who will join the aforementioned on the stage and in the shrine after eight years of eligibility. Some might explain his delayed arrival to the absence of a ring, but it also could be that Webber’s much-traveled career blurred any easy identification of what he did and where he did it.
Sure, the skilled and thoughtful power forward achieved his most notable team and personal success with the Sacramento Kings, with whom he played 45.4% of his career (377 of 831 games). But Webber was five years (294 games) into his NBA resume, with Golden State and Washington, before he got to Sacramento. He played another 157 games at the back end with Philadelphia and his hometown Pistons.
His playing days thus have a jack-of-all-teams feel: star for many, icon of none. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a different vibe than going in as “Mr. Laker” or “Mr. Spur.” (Some might consider Webber “Mr. King” but that’s neglecting Mitch Richmond and forgetting altogether the Royals eras in Kansas City and Cincinnati when Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson drove the franchise.)
“Everybody’s journey’s a little different,” Webber said at a news conference Friday afternoon at the Mohegan Sun resort. “I thought I was going to stay in Golden State my whole career… That wasn’t the case.”
Webber was the No. 1 pick in the 1993 Draft, traded from the Magic to the Warriors that night for Penny Hardaway and three future first-round picks. He was voted 1994 Rookie of the Year despite a falling-out with coach Don Nelson, then used an option in his contract to leverage a trade.
“I wanted to go play in Washington because Juwan Howard was there,” he said.
Howard and Webber were buds from their University of Michigan “Fab Five” days. But in their NBA time together, Washington was 38 games below .500 and missed the playoffs in three of four years.
Webber’s trade to the woeful Kings was more of a banishment, but his time there coincided with coach Rick Adelman’s arrival – Adelman is another Class of 2021 Hall member – and an assemblage of talent that came to include Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Williams, Bobby Jackson and Mike Bibby.
Webber reached the postseason six consecutive times in Sacramento, getting within a game of the 2002 Finals in a seven-game loss to the Lakers. Then he was on to the Sixers in February 2005, wrapping up in stints with the Pistons and even nine final appearances with the Warriors.
“I don’t know, you’d prefer to stay in one place,” Webber said, “but I think I left my mark in many places. And I think I helped make teammates and communities better by what I did off the court. So I really love the relationships I had with different teams.
“As long as it was in the NBA, that was fine with me.”
In the next couple Hall classes, the one-team wonders figure to be few. San Antonio stalwart Manu Ginobili is eligible for 2022, while Dallas Dirk Nowitzki in 2023 will qualify for that extra status even as Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker will not.
Staying in one place requires more than early greatness and steady improvement on the court, of course, leading to a growing connection with local fans. Trades, free agency and sheer business decisions can play roles, as well as the more modern trend to congregate on “super teams,” vacating opportunities stick as a franchise’s “face.”
While Dandridge’s time with Milwaukee and Washington weren’t billed as “super teams” at the time, he did play with two Hall of Famers at each stop: first Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson, then Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. Though valuable to the Bucks, he was a bigger deal with the Bullets, a scoring small forward acquired to counter Philadelphia’s Julius Erving. That balanced the two stints for him, despite spending nearly three-fourths of his career with Milwaukee.
“Going to Washington, [coach] Dick Motta let me know right away: ‘So goes you, so goes this team,’” Dandridge said. “Every NBA player wants at some point in his life to have his own team.”
Bosh had individual primacy in Toronto, team success in Miami and fewer concerns about how his career was split than how it abruptly ended. Blood clots in his lungs shut him down at age 32 in 2016. He is 37 now, a more reasonable time to look back and celebrate, with the Naismith enshrinement as nice closure.
That sense of athletic mortality – and the natural inclination to fight against it – is what made Pierce keep going with the Nets, the Wizards and the Clippers after Boston, in July 2013, traded him at age 35.
Sure, 99 out of 100 casual NBA observers might mistakenly tell you Pierce played his entire career with the Celtics. It’s hard to recall him in anything other than green and white and earning his spot in the Garden rafters means every bit as much as this Springfield thing.
But Pierce wanted to say goodbye when he wanted to say goodbye.
“I tell players all the time, ‘Sometimes you wake up and … the game retired you,’” Pierce said Friday. “I finished on my terms. I retired when I wanted to. I’m just happy that I was able to do that.
“Yes, a lot of people will always remember me for a Boston Celtic. But I had some influence in all the places I’ve been. In Brooklyn and Washington and even back home ending up with the Clippers [Pierce grew up in the Los Angeles area]. I’m thankful for that. There’s a lot of players who don’t have that opportunity.”
All of which goes to show, there is more than one way to get to the Hall of Fame. None easy, with some buses making more stops than others.
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