Reflections on the Basketball Hall of Fame

The Hall Dropped the Ball

Last week, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced seven new members of it’s 2012 class, including; former NBA sharp-shooter Reggie Miller, the league’s all-time winningest coach, Don Nelson, University of Virginia standout Ralph Sampson, two-time Olympic gold medalist Katrina McClain, four-time NBA champion Jamaal Wilkes, longtime college referee Hank Nichols and the All-American Red Heads — the female version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

The newcomers are joined by five members of the class who had already been announced: Nike co-founder Phil Knight, ABA star Mel Daniels, seven-time NBA All-Star Chet Walker, Olympian Don Barksdale and Lydija Alexeeva, who led the Soviet Union to two Olympic gold medals.

Once again, the Hall dropped the ball.

Inexplicably, Louisville coach Rick Pitino failed to make the cut. By any objective criteria Pitino is one of the best college basketball coaches of the past twenty-five years. An innovator, who was one of the first coaches to build an offense around the three-point shot at both the collegiate and professional level, he’s made six trips to the Final Four, winning the National Championship with Kentucky in 1996.

Pitino’s exclusion was particularly glaring since the announcement came a week after he led a third program to the Final Four, becoming the first coach to officially do so (Calipari’s Final Four appearances with the University of Massachusetts and Memphis were vacated due to NCAA violations) when his Louisville Cardinals defeated the Florida Gators in the Elite Eight. (Pitino also went to the Final Four with Providence and Kentucky).

Unfortunately, such peculiar omissions have become commonplace for the Basketball Hall of Fame. It should be noted that unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame includes high school and college coaches, as well as professional players and coaches who thrived in other countries. Over the years, the Hall’s inclusion of what was perceived as an abundance of collegiate coaches and foreign players while former NBA stars have been denied entrance has led many basketball fans and insiders to question the Hall’s credibility.

The issue came to head in 2005, when the Hall inducted three college coaches (Sue Gunter, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim), longtime NBA coach and commentator Hubie Brown and female Brazilian star Hortencia Marcari, without admitted one former NBA player. Fans were particularly outraged that Dominique Wilkins, then the NBA’s ninth all-time leading scorer and two-time NBA Champion Joe Dumars were denied admission.

The omission of Wilkins in particular was so disturbing that NBA Commissioner David Stern felt compelled to publicly express his c0ncern over the Hall’s selection process. Seeing as though Stern and the NBA are the Nasimith Hall of Fame’s greatest benefactor, the Hall was forced to take notice. Dumars and Wilkins were admitted the following year and the percentage of inductees has noticeably swung in favor of former NBA players since then.

Perhaps Pitino’s exclusion is the result of a backlash against collegiate coaches, though if that’s the case then the committee has swung too far the other way. The inclusion of Jamaal Wilkes, in this year’s class, a three-time NBA all-star, though certainly not a star player (Wilkes averaged 17.7 points and 6.2 assists over a twelve-year career), indicates that the selection process has shifted and voters are much less selective regarding former NBA players. Wilkes’ selection could also be seen as a product of fans and voters tendency to overvalue members of championship teams. (Wilkes won a ring with Golden State in 1975 and three with the Lakers in ’80, ’82 and ’85.)

First Ballot Hall-of-Famers

Another possible explanation for Pitino’s exlusion from the Hall of Fame is that the committee members may have determined that he’s not a “first ballot Hall-of-Famer,” a random distinction used to distinguish between different tiers of Hall-of-Famers and most commonly applied to candidates for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The problem with this approach to voting is that the Hall-of-Fames make no such distinction between inductees, so it’s illogical for the voters to do so.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons has proposed a pyramid-shaped tier structure to the Basketball Hall of Fame, with the greatest of all-time, such as Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar making up the top tier and borderline inductees such as Dumars and Wilkes on the bottom level. If the Hall instituted such a system or another tiered approach then gradations of evaluation by voters would be relevant, but as the Hall is currently constructed, voting should be based on whether a player is worthy of induction, regardless of how many years he’s been on the ballot.

Hall of Fame caliber players shouldn’t have to pay their dues in order to be admitted. They did that already; it was called their career. If voters believe that a player should wait a year or more before being inducted then maybe that player doesn’t deserve to be inducted in the first place.

Is Reggie Miller Really a Hall-of-Famer?

The biggest name in this year’s Hall of Fame class is long-time Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller. To most basketball fans Miller was a no-brainer for election. A deadly three-point shooter, he led the Pacers deep into the playoffs on several occasions, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2000, while earning a reputation as one of the most clutch performers in the NBA. His late-game heroics during the epic playoff battles between the Pacers and Knicks are legendary.

Forget the late-game theatrics for a moment and let’s break down his game. Miller was one of the best three-point shooters the league has ever seen and he was very effective at drawing contact and getting to the foul line, where he was regularly among the league-leaders in shooting percentage, but that was basically all he did. He was a one-dimensional player. Miller didn’t grab rebounds. He failed to use his size to exploit smaller guards in the post. He wasn’t a particularly good passer and didn’t create opportunities for his teammates off the dribble. On the defensive side of the ball he was simply average. And for all his scoring prowess, Reggie averaged just 18.2 points per game for his career.

Miller was never selected to an All-NBA First or Second Team (he was selected to the All-NBA Third Team three times) and the highest he ever finished in MVP voting was 13th in ’99-’00. The Pacers all-star was selected to five all-star games, which while impressive hardly screams “Hall-of-Famer.” His statistics and accolades are most comparable to players like Mitch Richmond (21.0 points per game, six all-star teams and All-NBA Second Team – ahead of Miller – three times), Tim Hardaway (five-time all-star, All-NBA First Team once and All-NBA Second Team twice, 17.7 points and 8.2 assists per game) and Kevin Johnson (three-time all-star, 4x All-NBA Second Team and 17.9 points and 9.1 assists per game), all of whom are considered long shots for the Hall of Fame.

The mercurial Hall of Fame selection committee obviously didn’t view Miller as a lock either. Last year, his first on the ballot, he wasn’t a finalist for induction. I don’t have a problem with Miller being elected, especially given the Hall’s ambiguous standards and its consideration of collegiate and international performance, but let’s not let his spectacular moments on the big stage of Madison Square Garden obscure the truth that Reggie Miller was a very good player for a long time. He was not elite.

Phil Knight?!?

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The most surprising member of this year’s class is co-founder of Nike Phil Knight, who was selected for his “significant contributions to the game of basketball.” At first glance it seems absurd that a man who has never owned, played or worked for an amateur or professional basketball league or team in any capacity should be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He doesn’t seem to belong with many of the recent “contributor” inductees like Jerry Buss, Hubie Brown, Jerry Colangelo and Meadowlark Lemon.

However, the business mogul’s impact on the sport is immeasureable. Nike’s sponsorship of individual basketball players, most notably, Michael Jordan has been highly instrumental in catapulting the NBA from a league whose finals games were aired on tape delay in the late 1970’s to a world-wide international brand, and increasing the popularity of basketball to the point that it’s challenging soccer for the most popular sport in the world.

What makes his induction somewhat difficult to swallow is the suspicion that his corporate dollars played as much of a role in his selection as his contribution to the game. For example, in 2009, the summer Michael Jordan was inducted into the Hall, Jordan Brand, a premium division of Nike, invested approximately $250,000 into a vast exhibit which commemorated Jordan’s career.

Knight personally is worth several billion dollars. He’s donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, and has made substantial contributions to the Stanford Graduate School of Business (also his alma mater) and the Oregon Health and Science University Cancer center. It’s not much of a stretch to consider that the cash-strapped Naismith Hall of Fame may be hoping for a handout from Knight in return for his induction.

The suspicion of impropriety is enhanced by the lack of transparency within the Hall’s selection process. Whereas selection committee members for Halls of Fame in other sports openly debate their selections, the public doesn’t even know who the members of the selection committee are for the Naismith Hall, nevermind who they voted for.

The King of New York

Like Pitino, former Knicks star Bernard King didn’t get the call he was hoping for last week. Unlike Pitino, this was the ninth time King was nominated and the second time he was named a finalist for induction. His situation poses an issue that’s often debated regarding Hall of Fame candidates in all sports. How do you weigh dominance against longevity?

King was one of the elite players in the NBA during the mid 1980’s as a member of the New York Knicks, winning a scoring title in 1985 and being selected to the First All-NBA Team in consecutive seasons. His quick first step and devastating arsenal of low-post moves rendered him virtually unguardable. However, his prime was cut short by a gruesome knee injury, and though he returned to average twenty points per game, he was no longer the dominant force he once was. Also working against King is his failure to achieve significant success in the post-season, though he was surrounded by marginal talent at best throughout his career.

Generally, I don’t like to weigh in on topics such as a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy when I didn’t see that athlete play in his prime, which is the case with King. However, I believe that there’s no greater indication of a player’s worth than the impressions of his peers. The feedback I’ve heard from those that played with and against King is that he unequivically should be in the Hall of Fame. Hall-of-Famers Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins are among those who have said that he was the most difficult player for them to defend. Sure, King’s prime was cut short, but he still averaged 22.5 points per game for his career, scoring over 20 points per game 11 times, while shooting a staggering .518% from the field.

International Candidates

King’s candidacy is particularly difficult to evaluate in light of the Hall’s consideration of international competition. If the Hall of Fame was simply an NBA Hall of Fame then King’s exclusion would certainly at least be arguable based upon his lack of longevity as an elite player. The problem is, the Hall has inducted so many international stars who didn’t compete against the best players in the world on a regular basis, while not admitting a player who was one of the most dominant scorers in the most talented league in the world.

The trouble with evlauating international candidates is that the standard for evaluation has changed. Years ago, when the best European or South American players only competed against players in their region it made sense to include the elite players in those regions in the Hall. Now that the best international players play in the NBA we can compare them to the best players in the world and their dominance in their native region isn’t quite as relevant.

Take a player like, Tiago Splitter. The Spurs forward is one of the best Brazilian players of his generation (along with Nene and Leandro Barbosa) and was named MVP of the Spanish League in 2010. In previous generations he may have been well on his way to a Hall of Fame career as a star in the Euroleague or South America and theoretically still could if he continued to play overseas, but the big man is averaging just 9.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in his second season in the NBA.

Splitter hasn’t accomplished enough overseas to warrant Hall of Fame consideration, though there are international players whose candidacy is more difficult to decipher, specifically those who came to the U.S. later in their careers when the migration of international talent to the NBA picked up steam in the ’90’s like Dražen Petrović, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoč and Arvydas Sabonis. All four were superstars overseas and very good players in the NBA, though none of them should be Hall-of-Famers based solely on their NBA careers. The question is, How much weight should be given to their performance in their native country, the Euroleague or their level of play in the Olympics and other international tournaments?

Sabonis seems to be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. It was apparent when he led the Soviet Union to the Gold Medal in the ’88 Olympics, destroying future Hall-of-Famer David Robinson of the U.S. in the process, that he was one of the best players in the world. His skill level and production in the NBA with clearly diminished mobility after several major injuries was a testament to how great he once was. Fittingly, Sabas was inducted into the Naismith Hall last year.

The case for former Yugoslavian National Team teammates, Petrovic, Divac and Kukoc isn’t quite as clear. Drazen was named Euroleague Player of the Year four times before joining the NBA and had emerged as one of the best long distance shooters in the NBA before he died tragically in a car accident in 1993 at the age of 28.

In addition to his accomplishments with the Yugoslavian National Team, Divac was named one of the Euroleague’s 50 Greatest contributors and made an all-star team during an impressive 16-year NBA career. Kukoc won the Euroleague Final Four MVP award three times and was an integral part of a Chicago Bulls team that won three consecutive championships from ’96-’98, winning NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1996.

Petrovic was inducted into the Naismith Hall in 2002. Divac and Kukoc haven’t been elected and most likely won’t be. Based solely on their NBA careers none of the three are worthy of induction. If they had played ten years earlier before European players joined the NBA they would have certainly been inducted based on their international credentials and if they played ten years later and joined the NBA at the age of 19, they wouldn’t even be up for consideration. The Hall’s inability to establish a consistent standard for international players causes further damage to the credibility of its selection process.

Collegiate Accomplishments

Ralph Sampson’s NBA career is certainly not Hall of Fame worthy. He was a great player over his first few seasons with the Rockets and along with Akeem Olajuwan led Houston to the 1986 NBA Finals, but Sampson’s knees were shot by his mid 20’s and he only played more than 50 games in a season once after the age of 25.

Sampson’s NBA credentials don’t compare to King’s, but the Hall considers players’ collegiate careers as well and Sampson is considered one of the greatest college players ever. He was named the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year three times (He and Bill Walton are the only players to win it more than once and they both won it three times) while playing for the University of Virginia and led the Cavaliers to the Final Four in 1981. But why should a player’s college credentials be considered for the Hall of Fame? Isn’t that what the College Basketball Hall of Fame is for? Who’s going to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame next, Christian Laettner?

An NBA Hall of Fame

One way to solve many of the problems discussed above regarding the confusing and often changing standards of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame would be for the NBA to create its own Hall of Fame, which would inductee players, coaches and other contributors based solely on their performance in or contributions to the NBA. The accomplishments of outstanding international coaches, players and contributors have been and will continue to be recognized by the FIBA Hall of Fame and standout collegiate athletes, coaches and contributors will continue to be immortalized in the College Basketball Hall of Fame and great female ballplayers can be inshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Commissioner Stern has repeatedly expressed his support for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and stated that he’s not interested in creating an NBA only Hall of Fame. It may simply be an issue of finances. The NBA currently helps keep the Naismith Hall afloat and perhaps Stern is worried that a Hall financed completely by the league would be a poor investment. Regardless of the reason, it appears there won’t be an NBA Hall of Fame any time in the near future and the Naismith Hall will continue to make perplexing errors in their selection process in the future.

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