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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hall of Fame Words of Wisdom, Part II

How do you summarize a lifetime of work, struggle and sacrifice in just a few short minutes? Each of the 2008 Basketball Hall of Fame inductees faced that challenge on Friday night. Here are some words of wisdom by--and about--people who reached the pinnacle of success (Part I can be found here.)

Hakeem Olajuwon

"Known as 'The Dream,' Hakeem Olajuwon redefined the pivot with supple moves and an iron will," Mike Breen said. "His signature was the 'Dream Shake' and during the '94 and '95 Rocket title runs it was a nightmare for opponents." When you watched Olajuwon annihilate David Robinson in the 1995 playoffs you just knew that this footage would be in Olajuwon's Hall of Fame video and, sure enough, there was Olajuwon putting Robinson into the torture chamber once again. "That's just innate talent," Robinson marveled. "I mean when you can just shake and go to the hook or the fadeaway jump shot...He was playing out of his mind. I felt really bad until the next series when they went and swept the Orlando Magic."

Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who played with and against Olajuwon, simply called him, "A really unbelievable package of pure talent."

With all due respect to Robinson and Barkley, while it is undeniable that Olajuwon had superb athletic gifts, what really set him apart was the tremendous effort he devoted to honing those gifts. Former Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, "He worked very hard to become a great player. He had legendary matchups with Moses Malone in a recreational center called Fonde." Tomjanovich declared of Olajuwon, "I think he's the best all-around center to have ever played the game."

Olajuwon said that growing up in Nigeria he did not know much about basketball but that sports are very big in his native country and that by playing table tennis, team handball and soccer--the most popular sport in Nigeria--he unwittingly laid a foundation for his later basketball career by developing hand-eye coordination and other fundamentals.

Olajuwon noted that the first day that he played basketball was "unbelievable" and that his first coach in Nigeria pulled him aside, provided him with individual attention and while assistant coaches worked with the rest of the team he gave Olajuwon the "job description" for a center: "Stand in the middle of the paint and block everything that comes in. Then, if they miss the shot, grab every rebound. He gave me this concept of the paint--this paint is your area and you should rule it. So, I was imagining this domination of what a center can do in basketball."

Olajuwon explained that his focus was not to be an All-Star or a Hall of Famer but simply to win: "My role for my team was to hold the middle. If you can control the middle and help your team win, the credit will come later."

He relived the experience of battling against Malone at Fonde: "Moses was the best big man in the pros at the time. Playing against Moses in the summer gave me a huge advantage in confidence as a freshman: How can any big guy in college be as physical or better than Moses Malone? So I got that introduction in the summer. That is not something that is common; if you look at my career, a lot of things that have happened are like a dream."

Like William Davidson, Olajuwon praised David Stern for his "global vision" and the way that he has helped the NBA to grow so tremendously. He called his college coach Guy Lewis his "mentor" and said that Lewis "set a high standard for me to keep striving to be the best I can be." Olajuwon said that Bill Fitch, his first NBA coach, made him forget about "the pressure from the outside because (of) the pressure from the coach. He demanded the best, so he really gave me the platform to come into the league and compete at that level."

Olajuwon praised Tomjanovich for "giving me the freedom and the confidence that he believes in my decisions. He gave me the green light that I could freelance in the structure of the team. For a coach to have that kind of confidence in his player was a huge responsibility for him not to be disappointed in my decisions, so that made me much more conscious of my decisions--not to take a bad shot, to make good decisions." That is a really fascinating point, because so many coaches go in the opposite direction: they try to turn their players into programmed robots instead of intelligent, capable people who can read and react to situations on the fly. That type of coaching can make players hesitant and it also removes responsibilty from their shoulders, because if the team loses they can just blame the coach's rigid game plan that they followed to the letter. Think about how many championship winning coaches stressed discipline and preparation in practice, yet took a step back during games to let their players' talent and understanding take over: Red Auerbach, John Wooden and Phil Jackson definitely fit that mold and it is no coincidence that they are three of the greatest coaches ever.

Olajuwon made another great observation when he said, "I did not have this great dream. It was just step by step, the next game. When I was in college, I wasn't thinking about the pros. I was just having fun." While it is important to have dreams and goals, thinking big alone does not get it done: day by day, step by step, you have to put in the work and you have to be focused on the task at hand. Remember Yoda's admonition to Luke Skywalker that Skywalker thought too much about adventure and the future instead of thinking about where he was and what he was doing? Put it another way: you can't make it to the Hall of Fame without first mastering your post moves, your footwork and other fundamentals.

Dick Vitale

Vitale is not being inducted as a coach or a player but rather as a "contributor" and there is no doubt that he has made a tremendous contribution to promoting the game of basketball by broadcasting games with, as Breen put it, "boundless enthusiasm and an endless array of catch phrases." Can you imagine the past 29 years of college basketball without Vitale? He is part of the very fabric of our experience of the sport.

Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Knight declared, "I don't think that there is any single person that has been more important in the development of the popularity of college basketball than Dick Vitale."

Not surprisingly, Vitale gave the longest and most free wheeling speech, starting with his humorous recollections of trying to recruit Magic Johnson for the University of Detroit. Vitale's passion for the game and his genuine reverence for its great players shines through. You just have to smile when you listen to him talk. When he called out the names of Hall of Fame players and coaches and said, "This room is so special to me," you know that this is a sincere sentiment.

Most people can probably identify with Vitale's early, struggling years as a coach, when his wife asked him, "When are you going to get a job and make some money like my girlfriends' husbands? All you are doing is chasing these guys playing basketball and making no cash." At that time, he was making $12,000 a year and when he got the chance to be an assistant coach at Rutgers he was so excited to take the job he did not even ask what the salary was. When his wife suggested he find out, Vitale called the head coach, who asked him what he was making now. Vitale told him and the coach said, "That's fantastic. You are only going to take a $1000 cut, baby!" Vitale said that he got down on his knees and implored his wife, "Pride! Patience! Patience!" Vitale went from being a sixth grade teacher in 1970 to an NBA coach in 1978 when Davidson hired him to helm the Pistons. Of course, Vitale "got the Ziggy"--Davidson fired him. Vitale said of Davidson, "You can't find a better human being for the way he treats people and what you've done for people...I told you I'm so sorry, because if there is one emptiness on my resume it is the fact that I let you down, I let the people of Detroit down. I never did what I wanted to do in my heart and what I really planned to do when I was named the coach of the Detroit Pistons."

After Davidson fired him, Vitale found out the difference between, as his wife put it, "friends" and "associates." What Vitale did not realize is that years earlier, while giving a speech to his University of Detroit team, he made an impression on a television producer who wrote down his name. Just as the door to NBA coaching closed, a door to the world of broadcasting opened. Vitale was reluctant at first, because he wanted to go back to coaching college basketball but he took the plunge on TV and the rest, as they say, is history. Vitale followed the advice of his mother, who told him, "Don't ever, ever believe in 'can't.' Chase your dreams."

Patrick Ewing

Breen spoke of Ewing's evolution from being known for "intimidating defense" to being "one of the best shooting centers this game has ever seen."

Ewing's family emigrated to the United States from Jamaica when Ewing was 12. Ewing's gym teacher decided to find an activity for Ewing to participate in so that he could make friends: basketball. Mike Jarvis, who coached Ewing in high school, said that at that first Ewing was "tall and skinny and awkward and clumsy."

Ewing's game developed quickly. Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson first saw Ewing at a high school game at the Boston Garden. Thompson was scouting a different player but he turned to one of his assistant coaches and said, "You get me him (Ewing), I'll win the national championship." Of course, Ewing and Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas did just that in 1984, beating a Houston team led by Olajuwon.

The first part of Ewing's speech was very straightforward and heartfelt, as he thanked all of the coaches, teammates and others who helped him along the way. Then he mentioned his "brothers in arms," fellow Georgetown centers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. During the Ewing tribute video, Mutombo mentioned how much Ewing had helped him but Ewing quipped, "From the first day that I met this man I could not understand a word that he was saying." Ewing thanked every one of his New York Knick coaches by name, except for Don Nelson: Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson, John MacLeod, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy.

Ewing admitted that when he was playing if someone would have asked him about becoming a coach he would have said, "Hell no." However, after Michael Jordan gave Ewing an opportunity to be an assistant with the Wizards, Ewing discovered that he enjoys coaching. Currently he is an assistant to Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. As Ewing said, "The Van Gundys must love me" (he was previously an assistant for Jeff Van Gundy in Houston).

Pat Riley

Breen said, "Throughout his long career on the sidelines, Pat Riley was seen as one of the most glamorous head coaches but he always proved that there was plenty of substance to go along with that style." Riley is the third winningest coach in NBA history. His "Showtime" Lakers won four championships in the 1980s and he capped off his career by guiding the Miami Heat to the 2006 title.

Hall of Famer Magic Johnson explained the cold, hard logic behind the glitz of Riley's "Showtime" teams: "His whole thing was to wear the other team down. It doesn't matter what happens in the first quarter. It doesn't matter what happen in the second quarter. But by the third quarter that team is going to be getting tired because we are going to be running and running and running."

When Riley went to New York he proved that he could be successful coaching a team that had a lot more plowhorses than gazelles, turning the Knicks into perennial contenders who fell just short of winning a title.

By the time Riley came to the podium, the ceremony had already lasted more than two hours and 40 minutes. "You all have had enough, haven't you?" he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, you'll have to wait." Riley said that he received the Hall of Fame call the day after Chris Paul threw nine lobs to Tyson Chandler for dunks as New Orleans handed Riley's Heat one of their many losses last season. Riley's first thoughts were of his father, who passed away 38 years ago. Riley thanked Jerry West for believing in him and giving him the opportunity to coach the Lakers at a time when Riley was not sure that he was the right man for the job.

Riley called Magic Johnson, "The greatest leader I've ever coached. He's a kindred spirit to me--we're fused at the hip and have been ever since we met." He also expressed special, heartfelt sentiments for Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, his franchise players in New York and Miami respectively.

Perhaps the most interesting name that did not receive heavy mention in Riley's speech is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 1985 Finals MVP who was the starting center on four of Riley's five championship teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:51 AM


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At Sunday, September 07, 2008 9:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

maybe im wrong but ithought you put dickie v in the stephen a smith category of too loud and obnoxtious not enough basketball knowledge. dickie v is great for game and good person and has done alot for basketball.

At Sunday, September 07, 2008 9:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

do you think if jordan never retired hakeem has two rings i dont think so personally but the matchup would of been intresting people have tried to put asterik on it it's not hakeem fault but i was just wondering

At Sunday, September 07, 2008 11:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Unlike Stephen A., Vitale actually coached: he won H.S. championships and was a successful college coach, though his tenure in the NBA was brief and undistinguished. It is undeniable that Vitale has become a bit louder and more outlandish over the years but I still think that his enthusiasm is genuine and that he does understand the game.

At Monday, September 08, 2008 12:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't believe in putting "asterisks" on championships that were legitimately won because retirements, injuries, lockouts, etc. are part of the game.

If MJ had not retired then a lot of other things would have been different, too. Perhaps Horace Grant would not have left the Bulls and then the Bulls would not have signed Rodman. Other teams may have made different personnel moves, also.

That said, the crux of your question is what would have happened if the 1994 Bulls with MJ had made it to the Finals and played the Rockets. My inclination is to say that the Bulls would have won in six games. Actually, if the Bulls had not gotten hosed in game five versus the Knicks in '94 then I think that they had a good shot of beating Indiana and Houston to win the title even without MJ. The Bulls did not have a player who could guard Hakeem one on one but what they used to do is have Pip roam around as a help defender, harassing Hakeem and then recovering back to the perimeter. The teams split their two regular season games in '94 and '95 without MJ playing.

At Monday, September 08, 2008 4:23:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It seems from one of Riley's books (I think The Winner Within) that his relation with Kareem was always rather somewhat fragile. They appeared to respect each other, but it's clear that their relationship wasn't as tight as Riley and Magic's. It's still a bit strange since Riley praised Kareem a lot during his career, and also afterwards. Maybe his perspective has just changed with the times. I remember after the Heat won in 2006 Riley said something like he'd trade all his previous rings for the ring he just got with the Heat. That seemed uncharacteristic considering how much Riley seemed to treasure his Laker titles and battles with the Celtics in interviews over the years. To a Laker fan like me, it made Riley look like a phony. But again, maybe that is a harsh assessment and you can chalk it all up to perspective and different experiences.

At Tuesday, September 09, 2008 8:28:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

vednam....I wouldnt take the comment Riley said to heart. You know he didnt mean it. Its just like I remember Michael Cooper saying that when he won a title with the Sparks that it meant more to him and was more difficult than his NBA titles. Its easy to be a prisoner of the moment.


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