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A Hall of Fame Class Like No Other

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Friday, September 11, 2009

It would be a fabulous team, these four men in their primes playing together. John Stockton, the all-time NBA assists and steals leader, would be the point man. Jerry Sloan, a tough guard and nasty defender before he ever became a coach, would play alongside Stockton in the back court. David Robinson, a two-time NBA champion who once averaged 29.8 points a game, would be the center. And Michael Jordan, the greatest artist in the history of team sports, would play small forward.

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Throw in a savvy enforcer and screen-setter at power forward, maybe Rick Mahorn, and they'd win the NBA championship every other year for a decade. And they'd be smart enough to see right past gender and happily play for an accomplished coach like C. Vivian Stringer, a woman who took three programs to the NCAA women's Final Four while surviving breast cancer and raising a daughter disabled by spinal meningitis.

It's as impressive a class as one can imagine that will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night in Springfield, Mass. Even the presenters glitter; all are Hall of Famers themselves. Stringer will be presented by the man she once shared a gymnasium with at Cheney State, John Chaney. Stockton will be presented by a curious choice but the worthiest of opponents, Isiah Thomas. Sloan will be presented by his biggest booster outside Utah, Charles Barkley; Robinson by one of his coaches, the great Larry Brown, and by the most popular Spurs player, George Gervin; Jordan by the sky walker he loved so dearly as a child, the largely forgotten Peter Pan of the 1970s, David Thompson.

All Hall of Fame classes are distinguished by nature. As a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter once said in defending why he voted against some perennial all-pro, "It's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good."

Even so, this class is a wow, and not just because of Jordan, though he still tilts the room. NBA Commissioner David Stern, in a piece he authored for the Chicago Sun-Times this week, said, "Michael is transcendent. He is up there with Muhammad Ali and Pele."

The others are more humanly remarkable, but two -- Robinson and Stockton -- are certainly worthy of standing alongside Jordan. In fact, they were his teammates on the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team. They were late bloomers, all three of them. Stockton played his college ball at Gonzaga long before the school became a fixture in March Madness. Bob Knight cut him during the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball trials and Sloan, the same Jerry Sloan, wouldn't fully trust him to run the Jazz until his third season in the NBA.

Robinson grew up in Manassas, and attended the Naval Academy. I remember, like it was yesterday, getting a call at my desk in the newsroom from Tom Bates, then the director of sports information at Navy, who said, "You gotta come see our center, David Robinson and write about him." I said, "You mean the skinny left-handed kid from Northern Virginia who was a freshman last year? What's so special about Robinson? He's a 6-foot-6 center."

There was a brief silence, then Bates said, "He grew five inches over the summer. He's 6-11 now." I drove to Annapolis for the very next game, and watched Robinson play in person countless time over his final three years at the Naval Academy.

Keep in mind that even though Robinson led Navy to a region final matchup against Duke in 1986, his junior year, he absolutely played in the shadow of Maryland's Len Bias and (even more so) Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Here's Robinson's line in his final college game, a first-round NCAA loss in 1987 to Michigan: 40 minutes played, 22 of 33 from the floor, 50 points, 13 rebounds. Do you know how many players have had 50 points in a NCAA tournament game since? None. Zero.

Robinson was drafted No. 1 overall but had to honor his commitment to the Navy -- he could have transferred out but didn't -- and couldn't play immediately in the NBA. Instead, Robinson played in two of the most famous losses in U.S. Olympic history: one to Brazil in the Pan American Games and one the very next year to the Soviets in the 1988 Olympics. Of course, over time Robinson recovered nicely. Teaming with Tim Duncan in the city that has very much become his adopted home, Robinson won two NBA championships.

And he did it during a time in which Karl Malone and Stockton, coached by Sloan, were building a long-running show in the Western Conference.

Stockton might be the least-known superstar in modern NBA history. He rarely gave long interviews, rarely chatted after games and revealed almost nothing of himself in more than a dozen years. Yet, Stockton was revered by both his teammates and opponents. The top players in the NBA at the time said, unanimously, that while Malone was a great player, Stockton was superior in all the ways that counted. It was Stockton who had the ball at the end of games, Stockton who made the key steal, Stockton who made the big shots, one that eliminated Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in a bitterly contested Western Conference playoff series.

The coach of those Utah teams, which made it to the Finals twice only to lose to Jordan's Bulls, was Sloan. It seems as if Sloan was the only coach the Jazz ever had. It's 21 years and counting, actually; he's the longest-tenured coach in professional sports in America. And as Barkley always notes, Sloan's teams never spent the kind of money the Knicks spend, and never could attract the top free agents. The Jazz scouted better than most and Sloan coached better than most -- coached like he played, with great emphasis on preparation, unselfishness and physical and mental toughness.

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, my father took me to the old Chicago Stadium on a great many occasions to see the Chicago Bulls of Sloan and his back-court mate, Norm Van Lier. The way they played was the only way to play. Sloan, in terms of toughness, was the NBA's version of Jim Brown. He'd fight a bear, I always thought as a kid. Of course, that's the personality of his Utah Jazz teams, and while most people see his entrance into the Hall of Fame as a coach, those of us who watched him play see no need to separate the coach from the player he was in Chicago.

Sloan, in fact, was the greatest player in Bulls history -- until Jordan came along in 1984. And nothing in basketball has been the same since.

Six championships, two Olympic gold medals, more scoring titles and points scored and last-second shots made and highlight videos sold than need to be enumerated again. You ask kids growing up in Chicago right now, born after Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1998, who their favorite basketball player is and they'll tell you, "Michael Jordan."

While Stern, in his piece in the Sun-Times, goes out of his way to mention Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Bill Russell, he still acknowledges that Jordan's contribution is, well, "different." . . . . "The league grew tremendously on a global basis when Michael and the Bulls were coming into prominence," Stern said. "Michael stands at a special place in the development of the NBA as a global sport."

And because of those contributions, and the legacy of the Dream Team, the 2009 class will always stand out in the Basketball Hall of Fame.



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