2014 Hall of Fame: Who Can Say What’s Fair When The Curtain Is Pulled?
USA Today Sports
Only two former NBA players survived the mysterious gauntlet of judgment that is the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame’s annual enshrinement process. And after familiarizing myself with the process, I feel comfortable looking at it as a survival rather than an induction. Basketball greatness is relative and the process to induct is simple math: 18 of the Hall’s 24 Honors Committee members, gatekeepers of a most exclusive kind, examine the nominees’ basketballing résumés and this year determined two of them good enough to enter the Halls of (human and material) infinity. Come August, Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond will be inducted into The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Tim Hardaway and Spencer Haywood will not.
While history favors the victorious (who also employ fine historians to write and mold their own versions of history), for our sport hungry culture, we can’t have the immortal without the mortal. And when the difference between basketball immortality and a faded memory is what amounts to a highly secretive and supposed supermajority democratic process, we’re doing ourselves no service by fixating on the conquering Mournings and Richmonds of our slender world view while the Haywoods and Hardaways are defeated by … margins, narrow or wide? We don’t know because those in power at the Hall, won’t reveal their methodologies except to remind us that if a player “has damaged the integrity of the game of basketball, he or she shall be deemed not worthy of Enshrinement.” In keeping the voters and their criteria hidden, the Hall does a disservice to both its inductees and the men and women fail to reach its Springfieldian summits.
So through that lens we are duty bound, if we claim any sense of objective search for truth, to explore the entire gamut of rejects. Of course, even our range of rejects must be capped by what we deem to be “reasonable.” Like the HoF, we must apply our subjective filters on this madness otherwise every Tom and Dick Van Arsdale would have a case to get in the hallowed Hall. But with respect to your time and the space allotted by this blog, we’ll focus on 2014’s four finalists who are separated by huge gulfs of off-court behaviors while they’re barely differentiated by what matters on it.
Of the four subjects here, only two have possibly “damaged the integrity of the game of basketball.” Back when Hardaway, Richmond, and Mourning were just learning how to put an orange ball in an orange hoop, Spencer Haywood was getting coked out of his mind in the City of Angels and trying to have his Laker coach, Paul Westhead, killed. Fast forward 20-some years and there’s Tim Hardaway on Dan Le Betard’s radio show going overboard with the kind of hate speech you’d expect at a Neo-Nazi rally: “You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
While these are offensive and illegal activities (at least in Haywood’s case), on the surface they shouldn’t be keeping Haywood and Hardaway out of the HoF. Looking at the enshrinement process, we see that to even become a finalist – which Hardaway and Haywood both accomplished – a nominee has to make it past the Screening Committee and the Board of Trustees who, if we are to believe the Hall’s own process explanation, are the ones determining whether or not a nominee has “damaged the integrity of the game.” (See the graphic below for a more thorough explanation of the process.) Any player who reaches the Honor Committee (the 24 final voters) would have survived the Trustees’ judgment and would be assessed on his or her merit. At least that’s the conclusion drawn based on the little morsels of documentation the Hall has chosen to share. But from a meritorious perspective, what else is really separating these four players?
Except for Hardaway, each player won a single title as a role player or bench contributor. There are no all-time greats among the bunch, no “slam dunks” so to speak. The four won a single MVP in their combined 50+ seasons and that was Haywood winning an ABA MVP. Their stats and on-court contributions to the game have been frighteningly similar. Basketball-Reference provides a Hall of Fame Probability which uses seven predictors to determine the likelihood a player will make it into the HoF. Keep in mind, this model doesn’t predict who should or shouldn’t be in the Hall, but rather their probability for making it. They ranged from Richmond (68% probability) to Hardaway (56%) to Zo (54%) to Haywood (52%) and ranked between 92nd and 108th in terms of historical probability. Their trophy rooms are all adorned with gold medals and All-Star selections, All-pro teams and All-rookie honors.
Richmond was the best scorer of the bunch, Zo the best defender, Haywood likely the most talented, and Hardaway the most exciting, but each appearing to be as deserving as the others except none of us get to know because basketball’s version of Skull & Bones have made blood oaths to keep the process and their rationale in the dark. But when a process is dimly confusing, speculation is inevitable and so we have to wonder if Hardaway’s and Haywood’s inabilities to secure 18 of 24 votes is the Committee’s way of meting out some kind of justice for their audacity to possibly “damage the integrity of the game.” This speculation is unavoidable even though Hardaway and Haywood have been welcomed back into the fold of the league and because they’ve both moved past the Board of Trustees.
Another wrinkle is that the Naismith HoF celebrates basketball in its entirety, not just the pros who spread the game to its broadest audience. Does that mean that Zo’s highly decorated college career at Georgetown carries more weight than Haywood’s single season at Detroit when he averaged 32ppg and 22rpg and was a first team All-American? Are members of the Committee still holding grudges against Haywood for the landmark Haywood vs. NBA case that ultimately paved the way for young men to jump to the NBA sooner than the league-appointed four years after their high school draft class? And how much does Alonzo Mourning’s non-profit and visible presence as Miami’s Vice President of Player Programs open doors for his inclusion?
This entire exploration only feels necessary because it’s impossible to see that much difference between these four players. No one will forget Haywood or Hardaway just because they missed out on the Hall, rather the sad part of this exclusive process is that men who’ve committed their lives to this great game won’t get to share what Alonzo Mourning so beautifully articulated:
You work your whole life for a game that you’re very passionate about and that you love. You don’t play the game because you have intentions to go to the Hall of Fame, you play the game because you love it. It opened my life up to so many different opportunities. The end result because of my hard work and love for the game, that’s being enshrined into the Hall of Fame. Nolan Richardson said the only other place to go after the Hall of Fame is heaven.
And the sadder part, which I doubt can be said of Hardaway and Haywood based on the trials and tribulations they’ve both endured, is that a man would require induction in order to feel validated for loving a game … but it sure would be nice.