By John Hollinger
DALLAS – This may not be the NBA’s greatest weakness, but it’s a weakness nonetheless: The league has been a poor steward of its own history.
This can be seen in any number of ways, from the scarce footage of games as recent as 25 years ago, to the lack of quality historic data, to the league’s part-time job of pretending the ABA never existed.
But one of the biggest areas the NBA falls short is with its Hall of Fame … or rather, with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. That entity isn’t affiliated with the league and doesn’t serve the league particularly well, but nonetheless the league seems hell-bent on endorsing it despite its flaws.
To me, the worst of Springfield’s many sins is its profound bias against past NBA players and coaches, all while rewarding college and international nominees whose resumes pale in comparison. Many wonder if a major contributor is an unnecessarily opaque voting system that discourages debate and has produced a series of bizarre choices in recent years.
Fortunately, this weekend provided a unique opportunity to talk to two of the main protagonists in any Hall of Fame reshaping that might happen: Jerry Colangelo, the former Suns owner and current Chairman of the Board of the Hall of Fame, and David Stern, the NBA commissioner who presumably would spearhead any effort to create the league’s own edifice.
“We’re at a time of change in the Hall of Fame,” said Colangelo. “That’s my charge, that’s where I’m headed, so stay tuned.”
Sounds encouraging so far – there’s no question the Hall of Fame process could use some revamping. Indeed, Colangelo has already done some surgery on how the Hall operates.
“By restructuring the board,” said Colangelo, “into a board of governors and then a board of trustees, by raising the bar with the people I’ve asked to serve, that changes the whole thing.”
However, Colangelo was light on specifics. While he said he’d like to add more transparency to the voting process, he enumerated goals that fell well short of most fans’ hopes. He focused as much on explaining the process as improving it.
“I look at the process that has existed: the number of committees, the makeup of the committees, the lack of transparency, and I’m being general, but I do know this -- the more we can let people know what the process is [the better]. For example, there are media people involved in this, only most of the media doesn’t know that. They think it’s a closed shop but there’s a rotation that takes place, it’s not the same people voting every year. Every two or three years you have to move on.”
When it comes to shining more light on the secret committees that currently nominate and then approve Hall of Fame candidates, however, he seems reluctant to change things. Which is unfortunate, since for most this is the top complaint about the institution.
“I’d like to open it up a little bit, be a little more transparent,” said Colangelo. “[But] I don’t think it’s important, nor should we, divulge the names of the people on the Honors Committee. Why? Because you’ll see people being solicited. I don’t want that to happen. You have to have some dignity to the thing.”
That’s a double-edged sword, however. Such openness does risk solicitation, which is something of a problem for the NFL’s Hall of Fame. But it also adds accountability -- an area where the Hall has been glaringly lacking. The very hiring of Colangelo, in fact, is one of the biggest improvements in this regard –- now at least there’s a face to attach to the institution. That said, it’s a far cry from a system like baseball’s where writers often feel compelled to reveal their own ballots and engage in multiyear debates with readers over certain player’s merits.
Instead, Colangelo has other ideas, including the controversial idea of involving fans directly.
“I want to educate the media and say, hey guys, here’s the way it’s structured, but here’s some thoughts about doing it a little bit different. I’d even like the fans to be involved to some degree, with some voting. I know it would be a weighted vote, it can’t be an equal vote. That’s where you open up a Pandora’s Box.”
Colangelo also refused to sign off on one of the oft-cited rationales for changing the process -- that the Hall has been unfair to the NBA relative to college and international choices.
Any analysis by anyone with an IQ above 10 would conclude the NBA folks have been horribly shafted. For instance, the league’s second, 7th and 9th winningest coaches – Don Nelson, Bill Fitch and Dick Motta -- can’t get inducted, while any number of less-successful coaches in other branches have breezed in without a second glance. In fact, success at the highest level of basketball seems a detriment rather than an improvement to a coach’s chances of selection.
Here’s an unbelievable stat: of the 81 coaches in the Hall, only 12 – Twelve!! -- did the majority of their work in the NBA. If baseball filled its Hall of Fame with AAA managers there would be outrage; somehow it’s acceptable for basketball’s Hall of Fame to do this, and the NBA seems content to just take it.
Colangelo disagreed, however.
“You would hear from those other groups that they feel they’ve been shortchanged,” said Colangelo, “because there’s been such a focus on the NBA. It’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
At this point he starts sounding a little bit like the king in Monty Python and the Holy Grail asking everyone not to argue over who killed who. Perhaps as the Hall’s Chairman he had little choice but to gloss over this particular point; nonetheless, it has to ring hollow to anyone in the league office.
Because of that seemingly overwhelming bias, some are puzzled that the league hasn’t said to heck with the whole thing and opened its own Hall. Ironically, college basketball, women’s basketball, and international basketball all have done so, even though their candidates have been treated much more favorably by Springfield than the NBA.
The NBA’s commissioner, however, is not among them.
“No,” Stern said flatly to that question. “Our view has been, maybe to a fault, that one of the beauties of the Hall of Fame was that it represented everybody, and it had international, men’s, women’s, college, pro, high school. And then FIBA went and opened its Hall of Fame; and the women opened theirs in Knoxville; and the colleges opened theirs in Kansas City.”
“But you know what, there’s really only one Hall of Fame, and we are happy to support it. We think that the process has become a better process, and we are supporting the Hall of Fame.”
Stern also endorsed Colangelo and the changes he’s continuing to make in Springfield. While Colangelo’s comments hinted more at working around the edges than fundamentally changing what is a profoundly flawed system, he nonetheless sees more change on the horizon.
All NBA fans can do is cling to those words he uttered at the top of this column: “We’re at a time of change, so stay tuned.” One hopes far greater changes are in the offing than the ones he hinted at in our interview. Otherwise, we’re left with quite a grand irony: The NBA is the lone branch of the game that hasn’t built a competing Hall of Fame of its own, yet it’s the one that’s served the worst by the current one.