Hall of Fame: Class of 2023

Class of 2023 highlight humble beginnings as they enter basketball immortality

Selflessness, disbelief and a few tears are shared as 12 new members enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Board of Governors, officially welcomes the Class of 2023.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — There is always a shared thread among NBA inductees at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that joins players and coaches from diverse backgrounds, who represented different teams and, especially this year, separate worlds.

They’re not quite sure how they arrived at this big slice of basketball history housed in a small Massachusetts hamlet.

This sounds contradictory at first, given the greatness each displayed in the league, the legacies they created, the impressions they left. But the disbelief? It’s true, because at some point in their NBA careers they all wondered, in the words of Gregg Popovich, “How in the hell did I get here?”

Well, the Class of 2023, so rich and deep, all echoed those sentiments during their enshrinement Saturday night, expressed in speeches that emphasized their own humble basketball beginnings.

Popovich, launching his coaching career in Division III, only to become the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. And Dwyane Wade, a Prop 48 case whose poor academics almost killed his high school recruitment save for Marquette, where he became a star and later won three championships with the Heat. And Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, all born and raised an ocean away from the hoops incubator of the USA, breaking the mold and stereotypes of foreign-born players to win NBA championships while shining for their national teams.

It is this humility that captured the spirit and the essence of this class, where appreciation was given, respect was paid and throats did get a little lumpy at times.

Wade’s speech was noticeably polished and heartfelt. Most of all, he spoke eloquently, far removed from being an educational outcast so many years ago as a teenager. He cited Parker, Gasol, Popovich and especially Nowitzki — the two engaged in a pair of intense NBA Finals, each winning one — and said:

“Who would’ve thought we’d be on the same team after all of our battles?”

Yes. Who woulda thought? Well, winning does that to coaches and players. When the successes stockpile, it usually means a group of them go into the Hall together, forming a family-type bond that will remain forever.

As for Wade, Heat team president Pat Riley called him “the greatest player ever in this franchise’s history.” And this is a team that gave a uniform to LeBron James, considered perhaps the game’s greatest of all time. But Wade was an All-Star for 13 of his 16 years and has a county nicknamed after him, honorably so. Therefore, that’s settled.

“I was clumsy as hell back then,” said Wade, replaying his introduction to the game as a kid growing up in the shadow of Chicago. He gave credit to the player who inspired all kids from the neighborhood during the 1990s.

Dwyane Wade, in his Hall of Fame Class of 2023 acceptance speech, looks back on his life’s journey and storied career.

“Michael Jordan captured my imagination and fueled my aspirations many times,” Wade said. “He created moves that made me immediately rush to my backyard to recreate.”

But Wade chose Allen Iverson — Wade wore uniform No. 3 throughout his career as a salute — to represent him on stage because Iverson reflected his generation and “challenged the conventional norms.”

The teammate connections with LeBron, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Bosh were pure, Wade said, and each inspired him in their own way. But it was a totality of everything, including the injuries he suffered and the defeats and setbacks he dealt with, that strengthened his resolve.

“I’m on this stage because my beliefs,” he said, “were always stronger than anyone’s doubts.”

Dirk Nowitzki, in his Hall of Fame Class of 2023 acceptance speech, looks back on his life’s journey and storied career.

Nowitzki said he was thankful that Don Nelson, his first coach, was a risk-taker and unconventional thinker.

“When I came into the league, Nowitzki said, “not a lot a coaches wanted a 7-footer to shoot 3s.”

What followed was a game-changing trend. Big men began stretching their range, but only one could do it while shooting off one leg. As for that signature quirk, Nowitzki made sure to give credit where it was due: His long-time personal shooting coach Holger Geschwindner.

“With him I had to walk on handstands,” Nowitzki said. “I had to play the saxophone. I had to walk on handstands while playing saxophone.”

Parker was 19 years old when the Spurs took him in the first round, much like Victor Wembanyama just two months ago. The big difference is the Spurs weren’t as sold on Parker. He bombed in his first pre-Draft workout, made amends when he got a second, and found a home.

Tony Parker, in his Hall of Fame Class of 2023 acceptance speech, looks back on his life’s journey and storied career.

Parker recalled in his rookie year how Tim Duncan gave him the silent treatment — “Timmy hates French people,” he assumed — and didn’t even bother complaining when Parker wouldn’t pass him the ball.

There was a reason behind that.

“My teammates would yell, ‘pass me the ball, I’m open in the corner’ but Timmy, he would just look at me,” Parker said. “He wouldn’t say anything. He would just give me the look, that look. And I knew I’d better pass him the ball.”

Parker said that changed when he played well against Gary Payton. He got respect and the ice was broken between teammates. But Parker wasn’t completely sure. When Popovich told Parker early in his rookie season he was being promoted to the starting lineup, Parker had a question:

“Have you talked to Timmy?”

Popovich told Parker he’d be fine, “and the rest was history,” said Parker, who won a Finals MVP and also four titles with Duncan and his other Hall presenter, Manu Ginobili.

Gregg Popovich, in his Hall of Fame Class of 2023 acceptance speech, looks back on his life’s journey and storied career.

Of all the inductees, Popovich’s place in the Hall was just a matter of time, and yet he appeared in a bit of disbelief, calling his journey “unimaginable, and that’s not an attempt to be humble. It’s not something you think about while growing up. It’s hard to describe.”

Well, he does have five championships, helped build a dynasty in San Antonio and has more wins than any coach in NBA history. That’s why he’s now in the Hall. But he had a blunt message to anyone who puts a premium on those achievements:

“The wins and losses are all crap,” said Popovich. “The highs and lows, all crap. All those wins and losses, they fade away. It’s about relationships. Those relationships stick with you forever.”

So Popovich, who’s still building relationships with players in San Antonio after signing a contract extension, saluted those bonds that made his enshrinement possible. It began at the Air Force Academy where a self-described “wise-ass” learned disciplined, to his first job at Division III Pomona-Pitzer, to the sabbatical year he spent at Kansas with Larry Brown and North Carolina with Dean Smith.

Popovich described how he built and strengthened such relationships with four different personalities, starting with the deeply religious Robinson.

“With David, well OK, I curse,” Popovich said. “I don’t want to curse, but you got to be who you are. Players have great BS antennas and if you’re not genuine they’ll know in a second. Just be yourself. So David said, ‘as long as you don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, I’m OK with you.’

“With Tony, if I coached him now the way I did then I’d be in handcuffs. He tells me I’m soft now. With Timmy, I just wanted him to listen to what I said or just nod his head. So once in a while he’d give me a nod. What I learned from Manu? I learned how to zip it and just let him play.”

Popovich also got emotional about his opportunity to coach the 2020 US gold medal-winning Olympic Team, calling it “a lifetime dream of mine.” Popovich spoke about his wife of 42 years, Erin, who died four years ago, calling her the family’s “center of gravity, our rock, and made everything worthwhile and meaningful. In her place our family has done a great job of keeping it going.”

Becky Hammon, in her Hall of Fame Class of 2023 acceptance speech, looks back on her life’s journey and storied career.

And then again when Becky Hammon, who was inducted as a player, spoke about her time as an assistant coach with the Spurs. It was a groundbreaking moment not lost on Hammon, now coaching the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA.

“I know you weren’t trying to be courageous when you hired me, but you did something that nobody else in professional sports had ever done,” she said. “You’ve changed the trajectory of my life and those of so many girls.”

Class of 2023 Hall of Fame inductee Pau Gasol acknowledges the impact of Kobe Bryant during his acceptance speech in Springfield, Massachusetts.

So deep, so moving. And that was Pau Gasol when he gave a special shout to the late Kobe Bryant.

“The person who elevated my game like no one, who showed me how hard you have to work and the mentality you have to have to be the best,” Gasol said. While acknowledging Bryant’s wife Vanessa in the audience, Gasol added: “I wouldn’t be here without you brother. I miss you and Gigi.”

And that was the overall message conveyed by the Class of 2023, all of whom were humbled, all of whom were deserving of their place in the hallowed Hall. The reality of their new basketball address wasn’t lost on Wade after he asked his father, Dwyane Sr., to join him on stage to “show we can make this walk together.”

The elder Wade seemed stunned, not sure what to say, so his son grabbed him and spoke for everyone:

“We in the Hall of Fame, dawg.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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