A Hall of Fame – and fun

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

This past Sunday, I did radio with Chick Hearn, took coaching advice from Jim Valvano, and went face-to-lower-chest with 7’7&uot; Manute Bol. All without ever lacing up a pair of sneakers.

Last Thursday morning, my friend Ella, a recent addition to the professorships of Chesapeake’s Cambridge College, headed north to Boston. For her, it was to meet with some deans and fellow professors; for me, it was a sight-seeing excursion through the streets of the city known as Beantown! Over the next few days, we ate at the original Cheers, visited the city’s Holocaust Memorial, took some photos one of John Kerry’s several residences, hung out at the site of the Boston Tea Party, and climbed the 294-step Bunker Hill Memorial (and as I write this, I STILL can’t feel anything below the waist because of that!).


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But there was one event that I’d always wanted to check out – a Red Sox game. Unfortunately, all three games for the weekend were sold clean out (who knew that my hometown Philadelphia Phillies were so popular?), and my attempts to pull rank as a novice sportswriter were turned down flat.

In desperate need of a sports fix, not to mention a column, I convinced Ella to drive about 80 miles out of our way to check out the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. And let me tell you, it’s enough to make any sports fan proud.

When we first stepped out of the elevator to the third floor (visitors start at the top and work their way down), Ella and I walked on to the mountains of memorabilia that fill the walls and displays. There’s legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s clipboard. There’s one of Bobby Knight’s Indiana-red sweaters. There’s 10-foot-long shoes that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlin wore, and a piece of the Spring Valley High School gym floor from French Lick, Ind., where Larry Bird got his start on becoming one of basketball’s finest. There’s a huge display on the history of the game – did you know that when James Naismith invented the game in 1891, the first &uot;nets&uot; were peach baskets, and the first women’s teams wore full-length bloomers?

Everyone from Magic Johnson to Pete Maravich to Allen Iverson has a jersey hanging somewhere. Michael Jordan put a jersey, pair of shoes, sweatpants, towel, everything but toenail clippers. Clips from Marv Albert could be heard.

Then I happened past a dark room, from which I could hear a television blaring. I stepped in, and saw a short film about what basketball truly means – or rather, what it SHOULD mean.

&uot;Basketball is about victory over pain,&uot; the film said. I watched clips of players getting hurt.

&uot;It’s about victory over exhaustion.&uot; Clips of players leaning over, trying to catch their breath.

&uot;And victory over grief.&uot; Players in the doldrums after a tough loss.

&uot;But the sport’s about effort. It’s about emotion, and it’s about the human experience.&uot; Clip after clip of players hugging each other, leaping for joy, and otherwise celebrating the thrill of winning together as a team. Then I saw one of the most emotional moments in NBA history; Johnson receiving the 1992 NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player award, mere months after he retired after being infected with HIV.

After the film, I went down to the Hall’s regulation-size basketball court, where a tournament was being played. Between tourney games, a group of plainclothes kids had gone out to sharpen their own playing skills. Not because a college scout was there taking notes, or because they had a pro contract and a string of endorsement deals on the line. To them, it was just fun.

On the windows next to the court, a list of quotes from some of the game’s most well-known was written.

&uot;I couldn’t run and I couldn’t jump,&uot; Bird said, &uot;so I tried to become a great shooter or passer.&uot;

&uot;Even when I’m old and gray,&uot; quipped Jordan, &uot;I won’t be able to play, but I’ll still love this game.&uot;

I think that’s what I learned that meant the most, for it’s more important than any shooting percentage or number of triple-doubles. It’s about the fact that basketball, whatever it’s become today, is still a game. It’s still played by people who just love to play it, not those who throw a hissy fit because they don’t get the ball enough, or think that they’re higher than human just because they get too used to seeing their face on the cover of magazines. And I think the sayings showed that some of the best the game ever saw would have loved it no matter what they were paid, or however many people watched them on television. It’s about a love of the game, not a win-at-all-costs mentality. When Naismith invented the game over a century ago, it was something new for his young pupils to do for fun, and that’s something that too many players forget.

So if you should want to revisit a time when basketball was a game, ask your boss for a few days off. Head a few states north. And remember when cagers of any age hit the courts to have fun – and that is the only reason anyone should ever need.