The coaching inductees this year include women’s college coach Sylvia Hatchell, who’s been a three-time National Coach of the Year winner, as well as legendary college coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino. Tarkanian is best known for coaching the great UNLV teams of the late 80s and early 90s, including the team that won the 1990 National Championship. Rick Pitino, who just won this year’s NCAA tournament with his Louisville Cardinals, also won in 1996 with the Kentucky Wildcats.
And then there are the two highest profile inductees into this year’s Hall of Fame class: Bernard King and Gary Payton.
For King, it seems like it’s been a long road to the Hall. He retired in 1993 and has been eligible for induction since 1998, but had been largely ignored up until now, much to the chagrin of the Knicks Nation, of course. King’s prime was brief but explosive—much of his career was ravaged by injuries (sound like a certain player who recently retired?). He made four All-Star teams, was twice selected to the All-NBA First Team and, at the height of his powers during the 1984 playoffs, he averaged over 34 points per game for the Knicks.
The Glove, as the Gary Payton was known, is the most decorated player to be inducted into this Hall this year. Unlike King, Payton’s selection by the committee was a no-brainer—a first ballot Hall of Famer. Originally from Oakland, California, Payton played four years at Oregon State (that doesn’t happen anymore) before being drafted second overall by the Seattle Supersonics (remember them?). He went on to make nine All-Star teams, nine All-NBA teams, was a nine-time member of the NBA All-Defense First Team and was the only point-guard to win Defensive Player of the Year. Payton, as those awards testify, was probably the best point-guard of the 90s. He was the one player who could legitimately claim to be able to slow down MJ—and he let everyone know it—and, with Shawn Kemp, he led the Sonics to an 1996 NBA Finals meeting with MJ’s Bulls.
Payton may have lost that battle, but he’d eventually get his ring on the 2006 Miami Heat. He was no longer the dominant player that he was 10 years previous, but he played an important role in the success of Pat Riley’s team.
Payton’s induction is about as uncontroversial as the induction of Jordan or Wilt was, but that’s not always the case with the Hall.
Nothing incites more arguments among fans of the NBA then the question of who should make it into the Hall of Fame. Induction into the Hall is seen as the ultimate indicator of a successful career—and in many ways, it is. It becomes harder to make the argument that someone wasn’t great if they’ve been enshrined in Springfield. Stick the words “hall of famer” in front of a former player’s name and it tends to neutralize any debate about their greatness. Therefore, fans and those in the media become rabidly defensive when someone they deem unworthy of enshrinement is mentioned as a future Hall of Famer.
As an example, almost as soon as Tracy McGrady announced his retirement from the NBA the argument regarding his Hall of Fame credentials started. His supporters, probably the majority, insisted he was worthy of the honour, while those who refused to drink the T-Mac Kool-Aid thought the idea of him being inducted was a insult to the holy temple of Springfield. The same heated debate will take place when Vince Carter retires.
But here’s the thing: the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame isn’t all that holy. While the all-time greats—MJ, Magic, Larry, Kareem, Russell, etc.—are all Hall of Famers, not all Hall of Famers are all-time greats. Are Calvin Murphy, K.C. Jones, Chris Mullin and Ralph Sampson players that spring to mind when thinking about the legends of the game? Not really. Did any of those guys have better individual careers than T-Mac? Did Bernard King? Debatable.
There are great players in the Hall and there are some not-so-great players there. And as Bill Simmons mentions in The Book of Basketball, the Hall really doesn’t do a good job at giving context to what we’re seeing as we enter the building. Someone may look at photo of Michael Jordan in the Hall, and then see a write-up on a college coach from the ‘30s and surmise that they both had an equal impact on the game.
Ultimately, the Basketball Hall of Fame tries to be all things to all people. As the class of 2013 shows, individuals are enshrined for their unique contributions to coaching, their success in the international game, a great college playing career, or their help in developing a rule change that improved the game itself. It’s great that individuals who’ve made a difference in the sport are recognized, but it might be time for the NBA to have its own Hall of Fame—the league has been around long enough, and is big enough internationally to warrant such a distinction.
Who knows, maybe it’s on Adam Silver’s to-do list.