These Inductees Have a History

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's not that tomorrow's seven inductees have so much in common; it's that this year's Basketball Hall of Fame classmates made such definable, yet overlapping, contributions in the same general era.

An owner, two coaches, three players and one very loud broadcaster compose the group that will be honored in Springfield, Mass., tomorrow, two of whom were seminal figures in Washington basketball, and several of whom one could argue had the greatest impact on basketball in his time.

The headliners, nationally, are Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, their entry together appropriate because they went at it so fiercely in the 1994 NBA Finals in an aesthetically challenged series won by Olajuwon's Rockets over the Riley/Ewing Knicks. Quite separately, they had historic moments in NCAA finals. Each was involved in an unthinkably huge and even epic upset . . . games that helped shape the phenomenon of March Madness.

The ever stylish Riley, while most people now know him only as Coach Riley, played for Kentucky in the now famous 1966 NCAA championship game against all-black Texas Western in College Park. In little more than 20 years, Riley went from being the most recognizable member of Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team to the coolest, most revered authority figure in the predominantly black NBA. It's why comedian Chris Rock said when talking about the lack of black leaders toward the end of the 20th century: "We need a black leader. You know who I think the black leader should be?

"Pat Riley.

"He may not get us to the mountaintop, but he'll get us to the playoffs."

Such was Riley's cultural impact. He became the Sinatra of basketball. Better and younger crooners would come along, and so would other coaches, men such as Jackson and Popovich. But Riley set the standard for what a coach wanted to be, how he wanted to look and be perceived. He was already an established head coach by the time Ewing led Georgetown to three Final Four appearances in four years, the last one being the huge upset loss to Villanova in 1985. Ewing, in his second Final Four appearance, defeated Olajuwon in 1984, who the year before had lost in a huge upset to North Carolina State in the championship game.

Olajuwon, though he was 0 for 3 in the NCAA Final Four, ultimately carried the reputation of a winner because in the two full seasons that Michael Jordan "retired" from the NBA, Olajuwon led Houston to the NBA championship, including the seven-game series victory over Riley and Ewing. Olajuwon, who grew up in Nigeria and didn't even play basketball until he was 17, developed sweeter footwork and better sleight of hand than any big man before him or since. His head fakes alone were Hall of Fame quality.

And Ewing, though he defeated Olajuwon in college, came to have something of a star-crossed career because he got close so many times but never won again. There was the loss to Villanova, the loss to the Rockets, the injury that prevented him from helping the Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals, not to mention the harrowing losses to Michael Jordan both in college and the NBA.

Yet I'd argue that Ewing had a greater overall impact on basketball. With apologies to UCLA and all the others, it was Ewing's Georgetown's team, coached by John Thompson, that introduced contemporary defense to college basketball. It was Ewing-led Georgetown (I swear) whose players first huddled up on the court during stops in the action. It was Ewing who first wore a T-shirt under his jersey during games, prompting a new look on every urban playground in America. It was Ewing who brought the power game and intimidation to college basketball. Ewing and Georgetown were the first must-see basketball of the cable era. He and Chris Mullin of St. John's should get royalties every time ESPN televises a "Big Monday" game from a Big East arena.

Of course, it was Dick Vitale who often called those games. He screamed more than analyzed them. Nobody younger than 45 even remembers that Vitale coached, both in college and the NBA, in part because he was the Bob Uecker of coaches. Vitale couldn't coach but he sure as hell could talk. I dare you to name a more important figure in the ascent of college basketball than Vitale. Even now he's the game's greatest pitchman. If Vitale is courtside, it means the game is going to be louder, yes, but also bigger. His presence conveys importance. It's an event. Al McGuire was an American original and Billy Packer was more exact, but Vitale has become, whether his volume annoys you or not, iconic. Players come and go, rather quickly now. Vitale and the coaches stay.

Adrian Dantley didn't have Vitale to hype his college career at Notre Dame. He played before the nightly explosion of hoops on TV. Mostly, we know him here in Washington because he played for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha. As great as he was in high school and at Notre Dame, he was just as prolific in the NBA. And he'd have been in the Hall of Fame before now if Pistons star Isiah Thomas hadn't gotten Dantley shipped off to Dallas for his best friend, Mark Aguirre, just as Detroit was set to win back-to-back NBA titles. With either guy, the Pistons were going to win. Dantley, by all rights, should have two championship rings.

The three best undersize players in the NBA since 1975 are Wes Unseld, Charles Barkley and Adrian Dantley. I don't ever recall seeing Dantley dunk a basketball, yet he was as fundamentally sound on offense as any player in my lifetime. My friend Neville, who has watched about 45 years of Washington high school basketball, says the all-time D.C. team has to be Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Austin Carr, James Brown and Adrian Dantley.

You want another incestuous connection in this Hall of Fame class? William Davidson, the owner of those Pistons teams that won the NBA championship in 1989 and 1990 that should have included Dantley, will also be inducted tomorrow.

There's no obvious connection between the aforementioned and inductee Cathy Rush, who more or less invented the modern women's college game and as head coach won three NAIA championships with Immaculata in 1972, 1973 and 1974. But we might learn of one during their presentations in Springfield.

That the careers of Ewing, Olajuwon, Dantley and especially Riley and Vitale have lasted so long and given people who love basketball so much joy is reason enough to celebrate them formally in Springfield. That they helped shape and advance the contemporary game makes their induction together that much sweeter.

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