Hall of Fame Game: the value of the sixth man

In exploring the nooks and crannies of the Basketball Hall of Fame, one will find a number of unique entries.

Two United States Olympic teams are in the Hall, from 1960 and 1992. The 1992 team’s impact on global basketball is readily evident. The 1960 group was clearly the most star-studded Olympic men’s basketball team of the amateur era, one which did carve out a special place in history.

The 1966 Texas Western college basketball team, with its all-African-American starting five, truly reshaped the sport. The Miners therefore deserve the place they will forever inhabit in Springfield, Massachusetts.

You might have no awareness of some of the other teams which have gained a permanent place in the corridors of Naismith’s Hall: The All American Red Heads and Immaculata College represent powerful stories in the history and development of women’s basketball.

These various examples prove many points, but the one we’ll focus on here is that they show that the Hall of Fame can be accessed in many ways. Contributions to the sport; impact on the sport and its level of play in a wider context; growing the game and making it more accessible. These are ways — legitimate ones — to get into the Hall of Fame.

This brings up an NBA-specific point: Why aren’t sixth men more prominent in the Basketball Hall of Fame?


It’s true that the NBA’s Sixth Man Award wasn’t formed until the early 1980s, but isn’t it even a little bit surprising that only two winners of the award — Bill Walton and Kevin McHale — have ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame as players, with both men (Walton before his sixth-man period, McHale after it) getting a lot of work done as starters to solidify their HOF credentials?

If you appreciate the fact that Walton and McHale spent many productive years as starters, in addition to their years as sixth men, one can make the claim that sixth men over the past third of a century have not gotten the Hall of Fame recognition they’ve deserved. There might be no better example of this claim than the man shown in the cover photo for this story, Bobby Jones.

Keeping in mind that several HOF players are recognized primarily for what they did in college — and that several others are included in honor of what they did in a combined college-and-pro journey — Jones certainly has a strong Hall of Fame argument to make. He was an All-American for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina, playing on a Final Four team in 1972. When you realize that only the ACC tournament champion — not the second-place team in the conference — could even make the NCAA tournament in those days, that Final Four achievement grows in stature.

In the ABA and then the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, Jones became a do-everything player, profoundly skilled in nearly every part of the craft of basketball. In his first four pro seasons, never averaging more than 34.3 minutes per game, Jones’s worst per-game averages in the following statistical categories were as follows:

Points: 14.5

Rebounds: 8.2

Assists: 3.2

Steals: 1.8

Blocks: 1.7

A capable scorer, rugged rebounder, thoughtful passer, ball-hounding pest, and paint helper, Jones became the kind of player who masked or at least minimized weaknesses on a team. Impactful in numerous ways at both ends of the floor, Jones made the Nuggets highly relevant in both their ABA and NBA incarnations. He then took his wisdom to Philadelphia, where he gave the 76ers the added measure of defense and energy they needed to fend off the Boston Celtics for most of the early 1980s, 1981 being the (narrow) exception.

Yes, Don Nelson of the Boston Celtics in the 1960s was a great sixth man, and one can find a few other sixth men in history who have been given a Hall of Fame ticket, so it’s not as though sixth men have been shut out. Moreover, the Hall of Fame should be primarily set aside for starters, those who had to carry the bulk of the workload for their teams. Yet, much as you can (and should) make the Baseball Hall of Fame as a closer or a relief pitcher, you should be able to make the Basketball Hall as a sixth man — not someone who had one or three really good seasons, but someone who spent roughly a decade (as Jones did) making teams better with a burst of jack-of-all-trades excellence in under 30 minutes a night.

Spending the first several minutes on the bench, and then sitting for crucial stretches of the third and fourth quarters, only to re-enter in a pivotal moment, cannot be easy for a world-class athlete. Being able to consistently deliver results as a sixth man, and moreover, to do so at both ends of the floor should be recognized to a greater degree than it currently is by the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In a sport where per-36-minute tabulations are kept for professional players, it only seems right that more sixth men should have a chance to be honored as members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |