Basketball Hall of Fame needs one more tweak

By: 04.07.10  •  11 Comments

Although Jeff Van Gundy can be the most entertaining and humorous national-network NBA announcer working right now, too often he drifts into territory where it’s like watching a game with a hyperactive 9-year-old: “Why? … How come? … When are they gonna? … You know what? … I wanna …”

JVG was most recently doing his child-like act during Spurs/Lakers last Sunday, when talk turned to the incoming 2010 Basketball Hall of Fame class and he asked why coaches don’t have to wait five years after retirement to get H.O.F. consideration, but players do. (Although it did set up a great moment when he said, “Kobe Bryant should be in the Hall of Fame right now. Tim Duncan should be in right now,” and then Sasha Vujacic threw up an airball as the announce crew fell into an awkward silence.)

Nobody wanted to tell Van Gundy that coaches — who can get inducted after 25 years active on the bench, but if they retire before that have the same five-year waiting period — get the special treatment because, honestly, a lot of them would die or become ill during that five-year gap, since they coach for so long and don’t retire until they’re in their 70s.

Another factor: Players need to be evaluated after a significant “Settle down” period. If we could vote guys into the Hall while they were still playing, overzealous voters would have already put LeBron James in, Grant Hill would have gone in before he busted his ankle, and Chauncey Billups would have been voted in last year during that stretch where everybody seemed to wake up at the same time and realize how great he’s been under the radar. And not to say those players won’t eventually get into the Hall when it’s their time, but you need a waiting period to accurately judge their careers when you’re not swept up in a wave of appreciation/hype while the accomplishments are still fresh.

Look at Kurt Warner. The NFL quarterback retired this year, and everyone jumped on the “Hall of Famer” bandwagon immediately. Yes, Warner put up some crazy numbers, but seven of his 12 NFL seasons could be classified anywhere from “mediocre” to “awful.” Right now when his career is fresh he might seem like a Hall of Famer, but give it five years and see if it feels the same.

Because the basketball Hall already has the five-year waiting period for players and retired coaches, their system only needs one minor tweak: A five-year waiting period after a candidate dies.

Now, before you jump on me and say I’m disrespecting Dennis Johnson, I promise I’m not. But even the biggest Celtics/DJ fan has to admit that Johnson’s death in 2007 played a role in his H.O.F. induction this year. When DJ died, career retrospectives were made and a new push enacted to get him into the Hall. Voters who had been snubbing him for years were reminded of how good he was. And again, I’m not saying DJ isn’t Hall-worthy. But he retired in 1990. If he hadn’t been getting in during the 15 or so years he was eligible before now, what changed?

Players who don’t get into the Hall of Fame during their first couple years of eligibility usually need something to spark a renewed interest in their resume and build up a swell of public — and more importantly, media — support. And sometimes, yes, a death is the thing that sparks that process.

The same thing happens in music and pop culture. Ray Charles is undeniably one of the greatest to ever stroke a piano and sing a note, but how many people were really thinking about him in the years before he died? When he did pass, the biopic starring Jamie Foxx blew up, his posthumous album got a swell of Grammy support, and everybody was all about Ray Charles. Same goes for every artist from Michael Jackson to Pimp C. One time I was interviewing an up-and-coming rapper and asked him who were his biggest hip-hop influences. Almost like a script, dude rattled off 2Pac, Biggie, Big Pun and Big L. Really? It’s like nobody wants to disrespect the dead, so they go too far the other way.

Not that it happens in the Naismith H.O.F. too often. Drazen Petrovic was inducted in 2002, almost a decade after his untimely passing. And while his NBA career was more “All-Star” than “Hall of Fame” caliber, Petrovic’s international career definitely put him among the greats. Likewise, most other inductees in the major sports who pass before their Hall inductions are unquestionably deserving. But with a guy who was already borderline like Dennis Johnson, I’m always going to wonder. It’s unfortunate now that when I think of DJ getting his Hall of Fame nod, part of me will have to ask if he was one of the guys who got in as part of an appreciation wave after he died.

And I would imagine even DJ wouldn’t want it that way. I’d imagine he’d want to be 100% judged on his body of work on the court, and not put in based on a wave of nostalgia or sense of duty because he’s no longer with us.

What do you think? Should the Hall of Fame have another “waiting period” for candidates who pass away?

– Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206
– Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag

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