A Net Gain
The new Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., adds a little orange to a New England fall.

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Autumn escapes, as everyone knows, are for leaves. From Skyline Drive to New England, folks head for the flaming fall foliage.

But not us. Our autumn pilgrimage is strictly for indoor sightseeing in Springfield, Mass., the gritty city where more than a hundred years ago basketball was born.

It may be fall in New England, but that's merely coincidence.

The Basketball Hall of Fame, part of a $103 million Springfield waterfront redevelopment, is wedged in between Interstate 91 and the train tracks, which border the Connecticut River. But we're not talking exteriors here. Imagine instead an immense interior space with more hoops than a Hula-Hoop revival.

Imagine also up to 200 sweaty guys of all ages, sizes and ethnicities running around and joyously shooting their hearts out at 20 or so hoops in a single room. And that's just one piece of the action.

Whatever you might think, it's just about Heaven to a hoops-obsessed boy, such as my son Aaron, 8. His favorite TV channel is ESPN Classic. He builds arena models from cardboard boxes. His favorite birthday gift was the NBA Encyclopedia. Though not as single-minded, his brother David, 11, also likes basketball and, after stumbling out of bed in the morning, starts his day with the sports section.

I, on the other hand, have come later in life to the game, spurred by my boys' interest. For the first time this year, I watched several rounds of both the NCAA Tournament and the NBA Playoffs. So after the old Basketball Hall of Fame moved into a new, high-tech home in September, and with hoops season getting underway, we decided the time was ripe for a hardware hiatus.

Packing begins with some urgency (on Aaron's part) two nights before our Friday-morning departure. Backseat road talk includes a debate on the greatest matchups: Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

After just under seven hours of driving (367.2 miles, four CDs -- two of mine, two of theirs -- and two pit stops), we pull into the Hall of Fame/Hilton Garden Inn parking lot in Springfield.

From our sixth-floor hotel window, we can see the parking lot stretches over acres to the Hall of Fame; it has not only white lines for cars but also the yellow outlines of four basketball courts. That's news to the front desk.

It's a splendid view of Springfield's newest icon: the immense dome and adjoining spire topped with a 14-foot-diameter orange basketball, reminiscent of the famed Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 New York World's Fair.

After dark, 812 bulbs light up the sphere. The illuminated orange ball can be seen from miles away, and shines into our room, transfixing Aaron but keeping David awake. The second night, curtains drawn, everyone sleeps soundly and later.

On Friday night, we manage to sneak in a couple of hours inside the Hall of Fame. Saturday, we are there when it opens (9 a.m.) and, except for an hour lunch break, stay until 5.

Breakfast both days is at McDonald's "In the Zone," in the same building and just a few steps from hoops heaven. The Hall of Fame lobby dazzles you with loud large-screen videos of key moments in key games (Maryland's NCAA championship last year among them). Floor tiles evoke the Walk of Fame in Hollywood -- except these feature the enormous shoe prints, with shoe sizes and heights, of such basketball greats as Michael Jordan (size 13, 6 feet 6) and Shaquille O'Neal (size 23, 7 feet 1). The boys are in awe.

The Hall of Fame consists of three levels inside the dome. In the elevator, a sportscaster's voice welcomes us (Brent Musberger on our ride) on the way to the third level. The first stop: a circumferential balcony with Hall of Famers' pictures, biographies and artifacts such as shoes and jerseys. Well, what did you expect? It's a shrine.

The third level overlooks the main action, the hoops-heavy Center Court below. But first come the second-level history exhibits, Larry Bird statue and warm-ups, where we measure how high we can jump, how large a ball we can palm. The boys "measure up" to the tallest and shortest players. They get to do play-by-play broadcasting and read from a teleprompter while their images appear on a screen. In the coaches' Locker Room, I learn more about Morgan Wootten, the legendary coach at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, than 33 years in Washington have taught me.

Throughout, an army of 60 teenage staffers clad in maroon-and-black sweat suits oversees the kids. Occasionally, the workers get to shoot hoops on their own.

The circular center court features the standard hardwood floor and a regulation-size court with hoops at either end. On the sidelines are a series of baskets -- one group of six is shorter for the younger kids. But they're all different, representing different eras, from the wooden peach basket of the first game to a netless rim, representing playground ball, to a regulation NBA hoop and backboard.

At any given time, there are scores of balls in play, a pickup game at one end of the court, individual shooters everywhere.

In two places are three rows of wooden bleachers. These are usually occupied by women with small girls and strollers. They look bored, like guys waiting for their wives in a clothing store.

The action on the court is interrupted from time to time when lights flicker and a brief film appears on the overhead electronic scoreboard. When that happens, the narrator's inspirational words stream across a wall: "It's the dream of David fighting Goliath. . . . And sometimes, it's a storybook ending." At times, a loudspeaker voice blares out a boy's birthday party in one of three McDonald's party rooms.

Our midday Saturday break includes a short drive to the new Dr. Seuss Memorial Sculpture Garden, in a quadrangle of science, art and history museums, in downtown Springfield. The outdoor memorial, dedicated in June, consists of sizable statues of Horton, the Cat in the Hat and other Seuss characters, along with a life-size one of the good doctor himself, seated at a writing table.

It's windy and about to rain. Our stop is brief. It is one of many local attractions on which we don't dwell.

Back at the hall, we file into the Victory Theater for an hour-long film of the 100 top NBA plays. The narrator keeps saying, "And I don't believe what I just saw!"

It doesn't get much better than this. In the Center Court, Aaron spends most of his time going one-on-one or -five with the younger kids at the shorter hoops. David, who is 5 feet 2 and growing nightly, challenges me to one-on-one on the big court. "Your shoelace is untied," I cry, an old trick. It doesn't work. His shoelaces are always untied.

Before leaving on Sunday, we linger in the museum shops but do not return to the Hall of Fame proper. As we leave the building for the last time, the boys are bereft. "I wish I could stay there forever," David says. "I'd sleep on the floor," adds Aaron, who says he would settle for having a birthday party there.

Mission accomplished. You might even say we had a ball. And, oh yes, the autumn leaves weren't bad, either.


GETTING THERE: It took just under seven hours to drive the 367 miles on a Friday from Montgomery County to Springfield, Mass. Driving back Sunday took 90 minutes longer, with traffic backups. Southwest Airlines flies between BWI and Hartford, about 20 miles from Springfield, for as low as $88 (plus fees/taxes) round trip on weekends. Amtrak to Springfield is about $150 round trip.

BEING THERE: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, named for the game's inventor, is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it closes at 6. Fees are $15 for adults, $10 for kids (5-15), younger than 5 free (1000 W. Columbus Ave., just off I-91, 877-446-6752, www.hoophall.com). The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden (413-263-6800, www.catinthehat.org) is free and located in the quadrangle off State Street, a five-minute drive from the Hall of Fame. The quadrangle has two art museums, and a science and a history museum, all of which charge admission. Info: 413-263-6800, www.quadrangle.org.

STAYING: You can't beat the convenience of the 143-room Hilton Garden Inn (413-886-8000), directly across from the Hall of Fame. There are weekend packages for as little as $99 a night in November -- it was $119 in October -- that include two adult admission tickets each day to the Hall. The hotel has an indoor heated pool, hot tub and exercise room, in-room microwave, refrigerator and coffee maker.

EATING: No doubt Springfield has many fine restaurants, but this isn't a romantic getaway, so forget about it. There's a McDonald's at the Hall of Fame, a Pizzeria Uno next to the Hilton, and many eateries across the Connecticut River in West Springfield.

INFO: City of Springfield, 413-787-6000, www.cityofspringfieldma.com.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company