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Thursday, September 10, 2009
Updated: September 11, 12:32 PM ET
Who votes on Hall of Famers and why?

By Ric Bucher
ESPN The Magazine

Basketball Hall of Fame
Reaching the Basketball Hall of Fame is the sport's highest honor. Who does the choosing?

Name a major NBA award and in most cases you not only know who is voting but what the ballot count was. In some cases you even hear directly from the voters why they voted as they did.

The exception is the most prestigious award of them all: selection to the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Which is a shame because it's one reason why the greatest -- and rarest -- honor a coach or player could ever hope to receive barely moves the public interest needle and the entire operation nearly went under several years ago.

You're not going to see Wilt Chamberlain's knee pads or Pistol Pete's droopy socks on eBay any time soon, thanks to an infusion of money that has kept the new $40 million facility afloat, and this year's ceremony is sure to be well-attended, with everyone eager to see if Michael Jordan actually consents to induction and thereby the notion he can't play anymore. But with the selection process firmly entrenched in the days of cigar smoke and back-room meetings, throngs are not going to consistently beat a path to Springfield, Mass., the way they annually do to Canton or Cooperstown.

But then who is worthy of enshrinement and who isn't in football and baseball is talked and written about by the longtime media members making the selections for months and years in advance, giving fans a chance to weigh -- or even present -- their opinion against same. The same element has created this year's momentum: Fans and media have been comparing and sharing their favorite Jordan moments for weeks now.

This, by the way, is not a pitch to put the Naismith Hall of Fame voting in the hands of the media, though there are worse ideas. But fans should know who is voting and why. They know what Shaq shoots on three days' rest versus one. Or Kobe's fourth-quarter shooting percentage in close games. Or how many dunks Dwight Howard has with his left hand. You think they're going to celebrate a group of individuals as the best of the best from the entire basketball world simply because some nameless group, without explanation or justification, says they are?

For Naismith's HOF, you don't know who voted, how they voted or why they voted the way they did. A secret committee selects a group of candidates and then a super-secret committee of 24 decides who among those candidates are worthy for induction. A candidate needs 18 super-secret votes to gain entrance. There's no telling if an inductee was unanimous or squeezed in, or if a candidate who didn't get in just missed or wasn't even close.

All this comes to mind not because Jordan, arguably the greatest player ever to grace the NBA, is being inducted. Or that he's being joined by two other first-ballot entrants, Spurs center David Robinson and Jazz guard John Stockton, creating one of the most impressive induction classes in years.

It's because Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and women's Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer are going in with them. And the late Dennis Johnson and small forward Chris Mullin, to name two, are not.

Wouldn't it be meaningful to know at least how the voting went for the four of them? Whether you agreed with Jim Rice finally getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and Bert Blyleven being denied again -- didn't it help to know that Rice received 76.4 percent of the votes, squeaking over the 75 percent line, while Blyleven fell considerably short with 62.7? Wouldn't Sloan and Stringer's accomplishment mean more if someone explained why they made it and the other two didn't? Or if you knew who carried the flag for them, as with the late Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes, who made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer 29 years into eligibility and five years after SI writer and selection committee member Paul Zimmerman temporarily resigned in protest over Hayes' exclusion?

Jerry Colangelo, former Phoenix Suns owner and USA Basketball chairman, is about to take over as the Naismith's HOF selection committee chairman. He defended both the selection process as "very fair" and the anonymity of the committee members to avoid "politicking," but he conceded that interest in the process might be heightened by a bit more transparency.

"I'm prepared to raise that point at our next meeting," Colangelo said.

Knowing how the Naismith vote went and why seems doubly important because unlike baseball's shrine, the Pro Football Hall of Fame or even the Hockey Hall of Fame, eligibility for Naismith's hall is not limited to a minimum number of years in the professional ranks. Anybody associated with a roundball and 10-foot-high rims is eligible. You'd think that would give the shortest shrift to the NBA, but considering that halls have opened in the past 10 years exclusively to honor collegiate men in Kansas City, women in Knoxville and international participants in Madrid, it would seem a lot of factions aren't happy with who is being left out.

Then again, it's hard enough to compare the accomplishments from different eras and divine what is Hall-worthy. Imagine having to weigh a women's collegiate shooting guard versus a men's pro center versus an Italian League coach.

That, though, is exactly what the Naismith selection committee is asked to do. You might even feel sorry for them. If you knew who they were.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.