My colleague, Matt Zemek, has been publishing a wonderful series discussing the Hall of Fame. Good points are touched on, snubs have been mentioned, and a plethora of over issues dealt with. That said, there is a reason he is going through all of this: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame makes me very angry at times. (I promise: I am not trying to be “Mr. Hot-take Guy” here, but when something gets your blood boiling, hey, you can’t pull punches.)
One of the biggest issues this particular Hall of Fame has is the fact that it is a basketball — in its entirety — Hall of Fame. Translation: Overseas stars, college stars, and even longtime high school coaches can technically be inducted, which to some degree devalues the importance of having a great NBA career.
The basketball community is massive. This isn’t like the NFL where the community is much smaller year-in and year-out. From the NBA to college to the thousands of guys playing overseas, there are few sports — sans soccer — which rival the scope of basketball. With that being said, it could even be argued now, due to its scope, that it is the most comprehensive Hall of Fame of any sport.
Keep this in mind: The format of the Hall of Fame did make sense a few decades ago. Not many were aware of some of the tremendous international superstars who never made their way into the NBA — or didn’t land there until their bodies were torn up (Arvydas Sabonis!) — yet still deserved to be honored. It wasn’t their fault people in the states had yet to realize how good they were.
It was (and still is) neat to not look down on a basketball player’s college career simply because his NBA career did not blossom. However, if the Hall of Fame is supposed to truly honor ALL of a basketball player’s career as a basis for admittance, the reality of Christian Laettner — one of the best and most important college players of all time — not residing in their historical echoes is a mockery of a travesty of a sham.
This is a large part of the problem with the Hall of Fame, and the easiest one to explain. Why should we take the Hall of Fame as seriously as we should when the organization doesn’t really play by its own rules? More so, are we “now” only using players’ college careers to help boost them into the Hall if they are on the fence? Finally, what exactly is a Hall of Fame-worthy player?
Test case: Is Laettner less or more deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame than Tracy McGrady?
Yes, McGrady was far and away a better NBA player than Laettner, but some call him a borderline Hall of Famer to begin with. This puts someone like me — who thinks Laettner should get in based off his college career, but not McGrady based off his NBA exploits — in a tricky situation.
McGrady, through no fault of his own, doesn’t have a college career. He went straight from high school to the NBA. Am I supposed to hold that against him? Here is the larger issue: Since I don’t think McGrady deserves to be in the Hall of Fame because I don’t think he was dominant enough for a long enough stretch of time (and yes, I hold his playoff woes against him because of his utter failure to ever break through in a single playoff round; it’s not as though I’m punishing him for losing in second-round or conference finals series), why in the hell do I lobby for Laettner?
I am admitting my hypocrisy here, but would still put Laettner in over McGrady, but that’s mostly because of how important and dominant the former was in the realm of college basketball. I concede the contradiction here, however: I am rewarding him for being better at a lesser level of competition than a guy who never participated at that lesser level?
That’s not the only reason I bring up the comparison. Laettner’s dominance in college, coupled with his not being in the Hall of Fame, can lead to a variety of much better NBA players being compared to him while determining Hall of Fame candidacy. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that:
A) the former Duke star should get in;
B) not the plethora of former NBA superstars who are fringe cases.
In other words: Being solid but not great — essentially a B-plus-level player — in both college and the pros does not cry out for Hall of Fame recognition. Being the best of the best at one of the two levels offers more reason for entry. Excellence in one trumps “fairly good” at both. Excellence is the mark of a Hall of Famer, and in college, Laettner had that. McGrady didn’t quite demonstrate it in the pros.
It would be far too callous and shortsighted of me to insist that the NBA simply invents its own Hall of Fame. Ignoring the full global history and reach of basketball, just to make rather unimportant debates easier for insistent columnists like me, is — on a relative basis — the dumbest thing in the history of the world. Still, the criteria to get in needs to be more defined, or at the very least, separate wings should be developed. That really can’t be too hard, can it?
Sure, even that would make for weird debates — how happy would a player be after being inducted into the “lesser” wing of the Hall of Fame? (This is where it’s important to remind you that Ralph Sampson — YES — got into the Basketball Hall of Fame based on his college career at Virginia. Laettner not being in the Hall, 10 years after the end of his NBA career, becomes more conspicuous in light of Sampson’s residency in Springfield as a Hall member.)
At this point I feel like I am screaming at a brick wall.
It is (very) possible that I am completely wrong on this and happen to be the only person who gets this frustrated with the Naismith Hall of Fame. For me at least, it merely feels too simple to get into, yet with parameters that aren’t easy to define. This exquisite contradiction leads us all to these yearly Hall of Fame debates, and I must emphasize that I am not a fan of diminishing one guy to help propel my argument to put another in (sorry, Tracy; you’re welcome, Christian).
Now if you don’t mind me… I have some circles that need running.