Thankfully, in doing so, they don't lay any special claim to the museum itself. Disorganized, lacking any of Cooperstown's iconography (no, a ring of Wall Street Journal-style portraits behind plastic doesn't do it), and at once incomplete and repetitive, the Hall of Fame is a huge disappointment.
One friend compared it to a kids' science museum. I felt like I was in an interactive infomercial for today's game, with artifacts and information from the past scattered about. Does the history justify the drive, where your child can measure his vertical against Vince Carter's? Or does the presentism prove simply that no one cares about basketball history? It's fine and good to celebrate past legends, but the game is a victim of its own progress.
Now that I've gotten that out, I did want to share with you my favorite parts of the museum. Not necessarily the most successful, but the ones that I will stay thinking about for at least another week.
Terence Moore: You Don't Need Game to Get Into Basketball Hall of Fame
By far the strangest feature of the Hall of Fame -- that is, aside from all the parts that left me angry or totally forlorn -- is what I like to call "The Corner of Earthly Delights."
Apparently, this is such a memorable place that people who haven't been to Springfield in years still remember it vividly. It consists of, from left to right: an Andy Warhol print of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; a well-lit, handsome mahogany case containing all manner of Paul Pierce jerseys, shoes, and autographs; and an absolutely frightful Larry Bird statue, maybe even "sculpture", that is somewhere between a 19th century wax museum piece and Han Solo when he gets turned into solid carbon.
It almost seems like a Hall of Fame garage sale. Why else would a piece of fine art, some modern day collectibles in a piece of large furniture, and this utterly bizarre tribute to French Lick's favorite son all end up huddled together like this? The Warhol is sold short, without the slightest explanation; Paul Pierce apparently deserves more space in the Hall of Fame than any number of actual Hall of Famers (Bill Russell, maybe? He's a Celtic ... ); and the Bird-golem can only be explained by some sort of ancient curse. You get the Hall's laziness, presentism, and randomness in one place.
At the same time, if I ruled the world, I would use the Warhol as a springboard for talking about Kareem's cultural significance, takes the Bird out of the shadows -- not in the least because it's so creepy sitting there -- and share its story, and, um, replace the Paul Pierce memorial with a tribute to Bill Russell. So close, yet so far away.
The museum's relationship with the past is best summed up by a video on the wall of the "journey through time" section: a bunch of highlights from 1980 on, broken up abruptly by "but before that" and then some black and white stuff. The pre-NBA era is summed up by two rooms, and then you get some tall, plastic placards with text, and then a collection of jerseys from the 1950's onward. Including Dwyane Wade. There's also a timeline one floor up, under the so-called "Ring of Honor." Confused yet?
I'm never going to thumb my nose at a collection of ancient unis. I think I crossed myself when I stood in front of a piece from the floor where basketball was first played, and neither I nor the YMCA have any Catholicism going for us. Artifacts are artifacts; I would have liked to see more material culture, like brochures, tickets, posters, anything but more jerseys and shoes. And yet if you're interested in understanding how the game evolved, this stuff is absolutely invaluable anywhere, in any form.
My personal favorite: a Syracuse Nationals shooting shirt from the late 1940's that I swear was made of yellow, orange, and red houndstooth. Short sleeves, number on the bicep, zipper going down the front where buttons would be.
I also did manage to have two hallelujah moments. One came when I found myself staring at a shredded Maurice Stokes jersey from his time at St. Francis College. Stokes is one of the most poignant could've-beens in all of sports history; his beat-up uniform suggested not a faded memory but all the power and kinesis that went into nearly destroying it. Rather than remind me that he ended up bed-ridden and seriously impaired, it was a testament to the intensity he played with during his brief career.
Seeing a St. Francis jersey, as opposed to one from his time with the Cincinnati Royals, also had meaning. Stokes preceded Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. He was the first African-American player so good that his team couldn't afford to relegate him to second-class basketball citizenship. It was at St. Francis that Stokes forced the NBA to see the error of its ways.
Then there was the jersey from Wilt's 100-point game in 1962. Here was the artifact to end all artifacts, advertised on the Hall's web site as a new addition to the collection. Too bad it was near-impossible to find. After asking a couple of employees, I tracked it down: off with the other jerseys, dwarfed by both the Kareem All-Star joint about it, and even more so, by the Shaquille O'Neal Lakers jersey, with shoes, to the right of it. You also had to look awful hard to find the card telling you why this particular jersey mattered.
Except once I got over this, I couldn't help but stand, slack-jawed, for several minutes. I took in every detail of the fabric, trying to read the game's action, or Chamberlain's mood, through the patterns of sweat and scuffs. Most telling was the long blood stain across the back, where someone had evidently clawed the big man as he took the individual game past all acceptable limits.
This game is almost spectral, with only the radio broadcast and a suspiciously huge number of eye-witness accounts to preserve it. That I was staring at such a direct, physical link to it was almost too much.
I love this sport, and at least in that moment, loved the Hall of Fame. I even came back again, just to repeat the experience. This time, though, I was careful to shield my eyes was just about everything else. Otherwise, the prominently-placed color images of Samardo Samuels and O.J. Mayo would distract me.