How to Save the Basketball Hall of Fame
This past weekend marked not only my first Hall of Fame induction, but as a private citizen, my first trip to the Hall of Fame itself. A Hall of Fame is a weird thing: it exists as both an idea and a museum. Enshrining players and teaching the history of a sport could, in theory, be done separately.
In the case of Cooperstown, the actual Hall, and its iconic plaques, are a sanctuary from the hub-bub of exhibits and artifacts. Going on that model, I'm going to look at both aspects separately. First, the honoring part.
It was either Scottie Pippen or Karl Malone who, during his enshrinement speech, referred to "the NBA Hall of Fame." Pippen or Malone quickly corrected himself, blurting out "Naismith Hall of Fame" like he had accidentally unloaded gossip at the dinner table.
We shouldn't be so quick to condemn; a cursory web search reveals that more than a few news outlets made the same mistake. No, people, it's Naismith. Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. That means pro, NBA and otherwise; college, no matter what happened next; and non-American play, both overseas and in international competition.
There are certainly fine, upstanding reasons for this arrangement, no matter how little sense it makes. There were professional leagues before the NBA; segregation kept African-American teams out; some of the best teams of the pre-NBA era were barnstorming outfits; college ball is beloved by millions and has, in some cases, shaped a legacy more than any pro career ever could; women were nearly invisible until the WNBA.
However, this arrangement poses a host of logical inconsistencies. For one, it's impossible to compare, or relativize, the level of competition. This is true as much within the NBA's history as across categories, since the league has changed so much since its late 1940's inception.
Baseball, of course, is less consistent across time and space than it would have you believe. But basketball takes the cake when it comes to evolution, innovation, and some would say, absolute corruption.
Perhaps most baffling is the college consideration. A player gets four years, at most, to make an impact at that level. Three in the days when freshmen didn't play; these days, as little as one single season. Compare that to the longevity we expect from a Hall of Fame-caliber pro career. It's a qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, assessment.
The weirdest case is that of Bill Walton, undoubtedly one of the greatest centers the NBA has ever seen. Unfortunately, he only played a couple of healthy seasons.
Good thing he absolutely dominated the college ranks at UCLA, which opened to doors of Springfield; this led, depending on how you see it, on his induction being a college + brief pro tenure combo, or his pro career being judged, like his UCLA campaigns, qualitatively. The same is also somewhat true of David Thompson.
By this logic, whither Ralph Sampson?
College basketball would be the easiest thing to ignore -- it could be the "Pro Basketball Hall of Fame." But again, this presumes that there has always been a clear line between pro and amateur in basketball, as was the case in baseball. What's more, for several decades the college game was far more sophisticated, even accomplished, than anything going on in the rough and tumble pro ranks.
Factor in race, and things get even more confusing. College integrated, at least in some places, before the professional leagues did in any sustained way. The NBA did so only gradually, restricting roles and employing unofficial quotas. If black players changed the game, they did so gradually.
Baseball simply has to acknowledge the Negro Leagues. Both in terms of who is inducted, and how strong we see any particular era to be, the Basketball Hall of Fame has a far trickier situation on its hands.
Of course, as with all things involving basketball history, the solution lies with Bill Simmons. Long ago and far away, Simmons proposed his new model for baseball's Hall of Fame. It would be a pyramid, with different levels, where fewer and fewer players made each subsequent level. Because, you know, there's less room at the top (think about the cause and effect of that one!). Maybe you heard -- he also did an entire NBA tome based on this concept.
I've developed a variation on this theme that resolves the problems of the Naismith Hall of Fame. After all, it's not fair or realistic to break down what's been developed and start from scratch with just the NBA.
What if, as with the actual pyramids, the Basketball Hall of Fame was a cluster of them? There would be one for every sphere of basketball, even eras within those, if that worked best. College, likely before and after the 1951 point-shaving scandal. Barnstorming. ABA. Women's ball. Overseas play. International competition.
Street ball when it meant something. The various pro leagues that preceded the NBA. And maybe split the NBA into 1949-1970; 1970-1979; and 1979 to the present. Just because comparing Wilt in his prime to Kareem in his to Shaq at his best is virtually impossible.
How does this cohere into something you can tell your kids about? Walkways. One for each player, connecting the various pyramids, and going to whatever tier they land in across the way. These would tell the story of his or her career, but also untangle the confusion about where they stood in the overall scheme of basketball. It would be especially dramatic if a non-HOF college player turned into an all-time great as a pro.
Who am I kidding, this would still spark all sorts of debates. Why, for instance, did I split up the pros like that, other than to make my argument more interesting?
I like to think, though, that this structure highlights the fact that these different kinds of basketball are brought together only through individuals' stories. Not just by virtue of all playing the same sport.