By Robert Kunz
It was a hectic couple of weeks. Inductions for the Hall of Fames for baseball, football and basketball just concluded on three consecutive weekends. This does not occur too often, and that is good, because traveling from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Canton, Ohio, to Springfield, Mass., over a 17-day period has its not-all-so-glorious moments.
There is a lot of standing, lots of autograph request rejections, lots of overzealous security, more than 10 hours of acceptance speeches and the occasional rain had to be endured over the duration of those days.
But I am blessed and lucky that I could do it. It was amazing seeing nearly 150 Hall of Famers in such a short period of time (from Reggie Jackson and Greg Maddux, to Dan Marino and Michael Strahan, to Bill Russell and Alonzo Mourning). The last of these three inductions was held in Springfield, Mass., on Aug. 8, with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrining 10 new members.
The class of 2014 included NBA players Mitch Richmond (six-time All-Star, 1989 NBA Rookie of the Year, and 20,497 career points) and Alonzo Mourning (seven-time All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2,356 career blocks); International player Sarunas Marciulionis (1988 Olympic gold medal for USSR, Lithuanian star and first Russian NBA player); coaches Nolan Richardson (509 college wins and the 1994 NCAA national championship at Arkansas); Gary Williams (668 college wins and the 2002 NCAA national championship at Maryland) and Bob Leonard (three-time ABA championship coach of the Indiana Pacers and winningest coach in ABA history); NBA commissioner David Stern; early greats of the game Guy Rodgers and Nat Clifton; and women’s college basketball team Immaculata University.
All seven of the living members were on hand to be honored. The Immaculata University team was represented by coach Cathy Rush and 10 former players from those three consecutive women’s championship teams from 1972-74. The team compiled an amazing record of 60-2 during those championship runs. Team members included women’s basketball Hall of Fame members Theresa Shank Grentz and Marianne Crawford Stanley. Both were on hand for the weekend in Springfield.
Like past years, there is always anticipation for the presenters. The impressive list of presenters for 2014 included Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, John Thompson, Earl Monroe, Nate Archibald, Chris Mullin, Pat Riley and many more of the Hall of Fame’s greatest.
Russell was a huge surprise, as this might have been his first induction weekend in Springfield, having even skipped his own induction. Russell was there to honor David Stern. While most inductees have one or two presenters, Stern had five. On stage for Stern’s acceptance speech were Russell, Magic, Russ Granik, Bird and Bob Lanier.
There were also many rumors of who else might attend in honor of the commissioner of 30 years. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Mark Cuban were the most rumored to be in attendance on that Friday night, but in the end, I did not see any of these gentlemen or any other current player surprises.
More recent players like Tim Hardaway and Walt Williams were in attendance to honor Mitch Richmond, but I believe that was it. A few fans did get some nice “Run TMC” items signed as Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin were all in attendance. I was hoping for an appearance by Shaquille O’Neal or Dwyane Wade since they were 2006 Miami Heat championship team members with Mourning.
More than 30 Hall of Famers attended at least one of the enshrinement weekend events. The number of Top 50 NBA players returning was near an all-time low, with only Bird, Magic, Russell, Archibald, Cunningham and Monroe attending this year. Mostly regular returnees like Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Dolph Schayes, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Charles Barkley were greatly missed this year. Rick Barry had a serious bike accident recently and was unable to attend.
Greats of the game in attendance were Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, Meadowlark Lemon, Calvin Murphy, Mel Daniels, Ralph Sampson, David Thompson, Jamaal Wilkes and Chet Walker. I always scratch my head to understand how baseball attracts 90 percent or more of its Hall of Famers to return, and how football regularly has 80 or more returning Hall of Famers each year. In 2014, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was advertising more than 100 returnees, but I believe the number was more like in the mid-80s. Some big names like Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw cancelled in the days leading up to the induction.
The main events during the Basketball Hall of Fame weekend were similar to past years with a Friday night enshrinement ceremony, and the Saturday night ring ceremony again moving an hour away and hosted by the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.
The Hall of Fame did add an expanded autograph session on Thursday afternoon. For $125, fans could get signatures of five new class members and four returning Hall of Famers. New class members in the autograph session included Mourning, Richmond, Williams, Richardson and Marciulionis. The returning Hall of Fame members included Sampson, Archibald, Lemon and Jamaal Wilkes.
Autograph sessions with some of the new class members and a few returning Hall of Famers were popular and were free with admission for few years around 2006 and 2007. I remember the sessions having Dominique Wilkins, Joe Dumars, Charles Barkley and many others during that time period. But then came the induction years of players like Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, and those sessions quickly came to an end. It is nice to see the past two years they have made a comeback. Hopefully that is something that will continue a few more years.
I hesitated to participate in this autograph event since players scheduled to appear were subject to change and because you could only get an item signed if it was purchased at the Hall of Fame gift shop; outside items were not allowed.
There are many years when the Hall of Fame gift shop did not have stock of full-size, white panel basketballs, and some years where the enshrinement program cover was not autograph friendly, so I was worried about what I would get signed. Well, I made a mistake this year, as full-sized basketballs were in stock and the 2014 program had a nice, easy background for signatures.
Panini sponsored the autograph session and also created two nice autograph sheets for the event. In lieu of an item from the gift shop, you could have the autograph sheet done. A good friend was gracious enough to provide me the image of his signed sheets from the five members of the class of 2014 for this article.
But the biggest mistake resided in the signing habits of Mourning. I figured he might be tough, but I never imagined for his induction he would be that tough. Outside of the Hall of Fame autograph session, I would estimate he signed about 10 autographs. He turned down just about all requests I heard of (including mine). I knew of two older teens who approached him with no one else around and he refused. I know two collectors who waited until 3:30 a.m. for him to return from his induction party only to not even be acknowledged. And I know he turned down autograph requests at the $500-a-person reunion dinner.
I was lucky enough to get my Class of 2014 basketball signed at one point during the weekend, but I was not so lucky on the class program. The rest of the class were great signers and it was no problem, if you put in some long hours. Commissioner Stern and new commissioner Adam Silver stopped and signed many times for fans.
If I had purchased the $125 autograph ticket, I could have also completed the program, and I would have done so in a second given another chance. The autograph session signatures of Mourning, Marciulionis and Richmond were also a lot more legible. The other signatures I witnessed the rest of the weekend were not anywhere near as neat and readable as those from the autograph session.
I don’t know what it is about the trio of Mourning, Ewing and John Thompson. All three of these now Hall of Famers are some of the toughest to get to sign for free. Bill Russell and Larry Bird could be added in this group and make a Top 5 “Tough to Get” list.
You really only ask Russell for an autograph for the fun of it – just to say you did it. You know he is never going to sign; I have seen him turn down other Hall of Famers who asked for his autograph. Bird is also a tough signature to get, as he signed only one autograph that I know of. Thompson was a little better this induction weekend than in past years. He signed a few items on Friday for fans. He was gracious enough to walk over to me and sign my USA basketball jersey. A couple of years ago, Coach Thompson attended, but he was on crutches and I didn’t want to bother him while he was infirm. So it was nice to finally get my USA jersey signed. It will be interesting to see if Allen Iverson gets inducted in a couple of years, and if this trend of tough signers out of Georgetown continues.
For all acceptance speeches that took place with the new inductees in baseball, football and basketball, I can remember the heartfelt sentiments of Frank Thomas, Joe Torre and Andre Reed. But the best speech of all was that of Nolan Richardson. It was entertaining, funny and had some elements of his family tree in preaching. (You can revisit his speech at bit.ly/1wfaaON). Make sure to catch the part of his speech when Richardson was first introduced to Indiana State’s Larry Bird as he listened to a game on the radio while driving. “Bird makes a great shot, did you see the pass that Bird just made – Bird this, and Bird that.” And Richardson then saying to himself as the game ended, “Damn, that brother can play.”
It has been a sad year for the Basketball Hall of Fame members. Since the 2013 induction, the basketball world lost Bob Kurland, Bill Sharman, Walt Bellamy, Jack Ramsey, Vern Mikkelsen, Tom Gola, Bob Houbregs and Lidia Alexeeva. I was personally saddened at the loss of Kurland, Bellamy and Houbregs, as I had gotten to know them a little bit over the years, and they were classy guys.
As I coach CYO basketball this winter, maybe I should take a play out of the Immaculata University playbook. Theresa Shank Grentz of Immaculata told of their away game visits as a basketball program with little funding. At each game, one player was assigned to take one of their old beat-up basketballs and exchange it for a ball on the opposing team’s ball rack. I will have to see; maybe it will work. We don’t have much a budget for new balls either.
Robert Kunz is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.