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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2016

This year's Basketball Hall of Fame class is headlined by two players who are polar opposites in size and playing style: the huge, powerful Shaquille O'Neal and the diminutive, quick Allen Iverson. However, it is important to not overlook the accomplishments of several of the other enshrinees, including Cumberland Posey, John McClendon and Zelmo Beaty.

Posey was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 60 years after he passed away. He spent 35 years in that sport as a player, manager and owner. His teams won nine consecutive Negro League pennants. He was also considered to be the best African-American basketball player of the early 20th century, before he retired from basketball to pursue his baseball career. Posey played basketball at Duquesne University and was later inducted into that school's sports Hall of Fame. Posey subsequently led the Loendi Big Five to four straight Colored Basketball World Championships in the early 1920s (the term "Colored Basketball World Champion" was used and accepted by African-American sportswriters in that era and is still used today by scholars who research the segregated basketball leagues of that era).

McClendon was previously honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 as a contributor but this year he finally was enshrined as a coach, nearly 20 years after he passed away. The term innovator is thrown around far too loosely but it fits McClendon, who learned the sport of basketball from James Naismith himself. McClendon's teams pushed the pace during an era when slowing the game down was the most common and accepted way to play. McClendon is the first coach to win three straight college basketball titles, leading Tennessee State to the NAIA championship from 1957-59. McClendon also coached the Cleveland Pipers in the American Basketball League, becoming the first African-American head coach in any American professional sport and thus paving the way for championship coaches like Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, K.C. Jones, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin and others. The movie "Black Magic" masterfully tells the story of McClendon and other African-American basketball pioneers.

Zelmo Beaty passed away three years ago, yet another great player whose belated Hall of Fame enshrinement arrived posthumously. Beaty led Prairie View A&M to the 1962 NAIA championship before earning two All-Star selections in the NBA. He then jumped to the upstart ABA, where he earned three more All-Star selections and was twice named to the All-ABA Team. Beaty won the 1971 ABA Playoff MVP award as he led the Utah Stars to the championship. He averaged 23.2 ppg and 14.6 rpg while shooting .536 from the field during the 1971 postseason. Beaty averaged 17.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg during his 12 year professional career.

O'Neal is the biggest figure in this year's class, literally and figuratively. I discussed his legacy extensively right after he retired. He should be commended for the wonderful way that he acknowledged both his history and the history of the sport by tapping Alonzo Mourning, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving and Bill Russell to be his presenters. O'Neal identified Mourning as a rival turned friend, he cited Thomas as a mentor in sport and business, he termed Russell the "greatest big man ever" and he is one of many who grew up idolizing Erving.

O'Neal is obviously one of the greatest and most dominant basketball players of all-time and I certainly don't want to rain on his parade as he receives his sport's ultimate honor but a few things are worth mentioning in light of some of O'Neal's repeated public comments about his career:

1) No one should buy the idea that the O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud was just for show or was some kind of ingenious method by O'Neal to motivate Bryant. If anyone needed motivation and focus, it was O'Neal, not Bryant. The main source of their feud was that Bryant was a relentless, obsessive worker in training, in practice and in games, while O'Neal preferred to conserve his energy for games (and sometimes only for playoff games). Yes, they had other issues as well and both could have been a little bit more mature about how they handled things but the ultimate issue was that they had a fundamentally different approach to the game--and history has vindicated Bryant's approach, because he had a much longer individual peak than O'Neal and because Bryant won more championships with less help despite not being nearly as physically imposing as O'Neal. O'Neal played with prime versions of Penny Hardaway, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and LeBron James, plus slightly past their prime versions of Boston's Big Three. O'Neal won three titles with Bryant and a combined one title with everyone else. I well remember that in the early 2000s many of Bryant's critics stated that any of a number of perimeter players could have won titles playing alongside O'Neal in Bryant's place; these critics likely never imagined that O'Neal would go on tour around the league playing alongside so many elite perimeter players but that happened and we found out that in terms of winning championships it is much better to play alongside Bryant than it is to play alongside the other guys. Meanwhile, my oft-stated contention during that era was that prime Bryant could contend for--if not win--a championship provided he had a solid big man and a halfway decent supporting cast. Bryant subsequently made the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and then he transformed the Lakers into a mini-dynasty when paired with Pau Gasol, who no one thought of as being even remotely close to an elite player before he arrived in L.A.

2) O'Neal has a tendency to twist history around in general, not just in terms of his relationship with Bryant. O'Neal has admitted that he made up the story about David Robinson refusing to sign an autograph for him when O'Neal was a youngster in San Antonio. O'Neal plays this off as a harmless self-motivational tactic and he claims that Robinson has forgiven him but this is different than Michael Jordan trash talking LaBradford Smith or the Vancouver Grizzlies during a game to motivate himself; O'Neal portrayed Robinson--one of the sport's class acts--in a negative light publicly because he could not figure out any other way to motivate himself to perform. Why is this deemed acceptable but Bryant's self-motivation--which was never about lying or putting down other people--is viewed so negatively?

3) O'Neal has said that when he arrived in Miami he knew that he was on the downside of his career and thus he told Dwyane Wade that the Heat were Wade's team. If O'Neal had been willing to have a similar conversation with Bryant then O'Neal could have stayed in L.A. and he almost certainly would have won multiple additional championships with Bryant as opposed to just one title with Wade.

One last point: O'Neal is often described as the most dominant player ever but that is not true either by the eye test or by the numbers. The eye test showed that a skilled and savvy big man like Hakeem Olajuwon could outduel O'Neal in the Finals during O'Neal's prime. The numbers show that when O'Neal retired he ranked 21st in regular season career scoring average (23.69 ppg) and 32nd in regular season career rebounding average (10.85 rpg). Those are great per game averages and they would have been even greater had he not extended his career well past his prime but there are just too many players ahead of O'Neal on both lists for him to be considered the most dominant player ever. O'Neal's back to back to back Finals MVP performances are among the most dominant ever but O'Neal did not sustain that kind of dominance game in, game out during his career.

All that being said, O'Neal is in my Pro Basketball Pantheon and I can say without hesitation that he was robbed by the media of several regular season MVPs that he deserved: he won the 2000 MVP (nearly becoming the first ever unanimous selection, a distinction that Stephen Curry achieved last season) while finishing second in 1995 and 2005 but he probably should have received the honor in 2001, 2002 and 2005 at the very least (the 1995 MVP rightfully should have gone neither to O'Neal nor to the actual winner David Robinson but rather to Olajuwon).

Iverson is the most amazing athlete I have ever watched perform in person. He is not necessarily the greatest athlete I have ever seen in person and he is certainly not the greatest basketball player I have seen in person but he amazes me the most because I stood next to him off of the court and I seriously doubt that he was even his listed 6-0, 165 pounds when he won four scoring titles plus one regular season MVP. If you saw him warming up from afar and did not recognize his trademark tattoos and corn rows you would have sworn that a ball boy had sneaked on to the court. Then the game began and Iverson spent 40-plus minutes (he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 NBA seasons, which is one of the most remarkable statistics in pro basketball history considering his size and playing style) being pushed, shoved, grabbed and bounced around like a billiard ball. Somehow, by the end of the game he would have about 27 points, six assists, two steals and a bunch of floor burns. Maybe his team won, maybe his team lost but night after night Iverson kept his team in contention and left his heart on the floor. Stat gurus will carp that he was not efficient and there is no doubt that Iverson would have benefited from taking a more disciplined approach to the sport (and life, for that matter). I did not agree with everything Iverson said or did but I would go into a (basketball) foxhole with him any day of the week. Iverson played every game as if it was his last and he gave every ounce of energy he had. Iverson played hurt and he hated to miss a minute, let alone sit out a game.

Both O'Neal and Iverson tapped Julius Erving to be one of their presenters. Erving has now served as a Hall of Fame presenter nine different times and according to my research he may hold the record for most times serving as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. Previously, Erving presented Cheryl Miller (1995), Moses Malone (2001), Clyde Drexler (2004), Dominique Wilkins (2006), Artis Gilmore (2011), Katrina McClain (2012), Ralph Sampson (2012). Erving has often stated that he values respect more than popularity and the fact that so many Hall of Famers from so many diverse backgrounds have selected him as a presenter is a testament to how highly respected Erving is across the board.

The other members of the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame class not discussed in this article are referee Darell Garretson, college coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and Chinese/NBA star Yao Ming. Their careers and accomplishments are of course noteworthy as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM