If you love basketball and you haven’t been to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, you need to go at some point. It was remodeled five or six years ago and it is really beautiful. There’s a great collection of memorabilia and plaques honoring all of the inductees, including our own Ann Meyers Drysdale and Jerry Colangelo. When you walk in, you truly feel like you’re in the Mecca of basketball.
Last week, I made my second visit to the Hall for the induction ceremonies – my first trip was two years ago to see Al McCoy honored for his work in broadcasting. This time I went to support a couple of former teammates, Michael Jordan and David Robinson, along with two others who have had a huge impact on my life – Doug Collins and Johnny ‘Red’ Kerr, the former Suns’ coach.
Doug and I worked together at TNT and he was honored for his contributions as a television commentator. He gave a beautiful speech in which he graciously thanked his family, his friends and colleagues from the basketball world, and told some great stories from his playing days. Of all the people I’ve ever known in basketball, no one appreciates the game more than Doug. He truly has a sense of how much the game has meant to him, not only in regards to the competition and joy and financial reward, but also the friendship and camaraderie has provided him. Doug’s honor was well deserved, as he is one of the great commentators of all time. I love watching a game with Doug breaking down what’s going on – he is the best.
I knew Red Kerr quite well when I played in Chicago from 1993-98. He was the Bulls’ television commentator at the time, which followed a long, storied career as a player and a coach in the NBA. Red was honored posthumously, as he passed away this past spring following a bout with cancer. His son Matt was there to accept the honor – the John Bunn Award for Lifetime Achievement. Red and I were not related, although occasionally I’d get stuck with his bar tab when we were checking out of hotels on road trips. (Talk about eyebrow raising!) He was one of the great characters in the NBA’s history, with a great sense of humor and a million stories from the early days of the league, when the NBA was hardly the corporate giant it is now. Like Doug, Red loved basketball and stayed in the game his entire life. He is missed, particularly in Chicago where he made such a big mark.
Probably the highlight of the weekend was hearing the speeches of the five Hall of Fame inductees – Robinson, John Stockton, Vivian Stringer, Jerry Sloan and Jordan. Obviously every Hall of Fame class is an impressive one, but this one ranks as one of the greatest of all time. To hear the stories of these amazing people is fascinating, because everyone comes from such different backgrounds and had so many influences in their lives. Yet basketball is the common thread that allowed each person to become so successful.
David Robinson was fantastic. He is clearly very happy in his post retirement, raising his three boys with his wife Valerie and putting his time, money and effort into helping develop the Carver Academy, a school for underprivileged kids in San Antonio. I’m not sure there’s ever been an athlete who has done more for his community than David. He originally donated $9 million of his own money to get the school off the ground, and now it is thriving, helping hundreds of kids get an education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. David’s speech focused on his family, his teammates and his faith, and it was done with typical class and eloquence.
The surprise of the evening was Stockton. I played against John for many years, and of course everyone remembers him as one of the great point guards of all time. But during his long playing career, he rarely let his guard down with the media. He just went about his job and stayed pretty quiet. I never knew him well, but admired him from afar. He was possibly the toughest competitors I ever faced. What I didn’t know, though, was how funny he is. John gave a brilliant speech that was filled with wit, humor, emotion and poignancy. If you get a chance, check it out on youtube – I thought it was amazing.
Vivian Stringer and Jerry Sloan had similar stories. Each came from very modest beginnings – blue collar backgrounds, tragedy dotting their early lives, and basketball becoming a refuge and eventually a way to a better life. Both gave great speeches – Vivian in an eloquent, passionate way that gave me a pretty good idea of what it would be like to play for her. She is funny, thoughtful and full of life experience, and it’s easy to see how her players must have learned a ton from her. Sloan, by his own admission, hates the spotlight and would rather not talk about himself. But he told the audience of his early upbringing in the most rural part of Illinois, one of ten kids working on a farm and going to class in a one room schoolhouse. Hearing about his background explained everything about his coaching style and the teams he has crafted– no nonsense, tough, and physical.
Michael’s speech has been the subject of some controversy the past few days, because he definitely took some shots at people. The thing you have to understand about MJ is that he is who he is – there’s no fake in him whatsoever, and he says what he feels. He showed more emotion than I thought he would, crying before he could really get started. I was glad he thanked Scottie Pippen for helping him win 6 championships, and he also thanked many others who helped him ‘stoke the fire’ along the way: Dean Smith and Phil Jackson in particular. But he also thanked – in a sort of perverse way – people like Jeff Van Gundy, Bryon Russell, and Jerry Krause – for unintentionally motivating Michael to new heights by slighting him during his career.
I guess the way I look at it is, Michael was the most dominant athlete of our time. Even in the alpha dog world of the NBA, he was The Man and reigned supreme over everyone. He knew he needed to be the lead wolf, in order to give him and his team a psychological edge. Well, that dominance wasn’t contrived. MJ knew he was better than everyone, and he used that confidence to spur him on. And he also used any other fuel he could find, including the words of his detractors, real or imagined. His speech reflected the attitude that made him so good, whether people liked it or not.
In the end, what I enjoyed most about the weekend was hearing people’s stories about where they came from, and then what the game of basketball did for their lives. I think about that all the time – how important the game has been to me. It has introduced me to my best friends, it has given me a life of great reward, challenge and emotion, and it has given me a path to follow that keeps me happy and energized. Thinking about how many people there are out there who have been similarly affected by a silly game with a ball and a hoop is pretty incredible.
But I guess that’s why we love the game.