Twelve men and women will have their contributions to the game of basketball forever enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday, but the wait for basketball immortality has been particularly long for three of them.
Richie Guerin, Bernard King, and Roger Brown are some of the finest players to ever grace a basketball court, but each member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2013 had to endure and overcome extreme obstacles just to get there.
A decision as a teenager ultimately cost Guerin the start to his NBA career.
In 1947, two years before the league existed, Guerin, then 15, volunteered for the Marine Corps as a reservist. It wasn’t until 1954, in the midst of the Cold War, when he was called to active duty. Though Guerin missed a particularly dangerous time in Korea while attending Iona University, he served for two years in sultry, swampy Quantico, Va., a place for anyone desiring sunburns and mosquito bites.
When he finally started his basketball career in 1956, at 24, his game embodied the tough and brutal conditions there. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Guerin was easily one of the bigger and stronger guards in the league, and he used his bulk to perform powerful drives to the basket.
In 1958, the six-time All-Star set a Knicks record with 21 assists in a game. The next season, he scored 57 points in a game, also a Knicks record.
In 1963, Guerin was traded to the St. Louis Hawks, and he took his drill-sergeant demeanor to the sideline as player-coach, winning coach of the year in 1968. Guerin retired in 1970, at 37.
His single-game Knicks scoring record, however, fell many years ago, thanks to King.
It was Christmas 1984 and the Knicks were taking on the New Jersey Nets at Madison Square Garden. The Brooklyn-born King scorched the Nets for 60 points with a series of his patented low-post turnaround jumpers. As the performance demonstrated, King was having a fine 1984-85 season.
Averaging 33 points per game, King and the Knicks rolled into Kansas City to take on the Kings on March 23, 1985. He was in rare form that night, scoring 37 points on 16-for-26 shooting. However, after finishing a layup, King landed awkwardly. He collapsed, holding his knee with one hand and pounding the floor with the other.
The torn ACL he suffered was cruelly career-altering, if not career-ending, for most players in the 1980s. But King nearly returned to form. After two years of rehabilitation, the three-time All-Star returned to the NBA, first with the Knicks, for six games, and then with the Washington Bullets. His scoring average slowly climbed from 17.2 in 1987-88 to 20.7 in 1988-89, and 22.4 in 1989-90.
The following season, at age 34, King averaged 28.4 points per game, the second-highest mark of his career, and was named an All-Star for the fourth and final time. The highlight of that season was King’s return to MSG, where he totaled 44 points and 12 rebounds against the Knicks.
But another knee injury forced King out for all of the following season. Retirement came shortly thereafter after a brief, uneventful stint with the Nets in 1992-93.
The Brooklyn-born Brown was one of the most highly recruited players in the country in 1960. Out of all the suitors, he chose the University of Dayton. But one year later, Brown was banned by Dayton, the NCAA and the NBA in a trifecta of misbegotten justice stemming from Jack Molinas.
Offering gifts, cash, and car rides, Molinas sought information from Brown on playground ballers in New York City. But Molinas had been banned by the NBA in 1954 for betting on games, and the information he gathered from the unwitting Brown and other young players was used to buttress an enormous gambling empire.
Although no evidence has ever surfaced that Brown was complicit in the scheme, or even knew it existed, he was nonetheless banned when investigators closed Molinas’ point-shaving cabal in 1961. So for the next several years, Brown was relegated to playing amateur and pickup games, often against NBA-level talent, such as Oscar Robertson.
But in 1967, based on the advice of the "Big O," the newly formed Indiana Pacers signed Brown for the inaugural season of the ABA. What they got was far better than they ever could have imagined.
Brown perhaps had the best series of one-on-one moves of any player at the time. Jab steps, pump fakes, hesitating dribbles, step-backs -- he had it all. The Rajah, as he was often called, put it all on display against the Los Angeles Stars in the 1970 ABA Finals, scoring 53, 39, and 45 points in the final three games to win the title. It was the first of three championships in four seasons for the Pacers, whom Brown played for until 1975.
But despite a successful eight-year stint in the ABA, he never got a chance to play in the NBA.
Making to the Hall of Fame is hard enough. Guerin, King and Brown achieved it while also resisting the inexorable weight of time.
After such a long wait, Guerin’s merciless, hard-charging drives to the basket will be memorialized; King’s barrel-chested fast-break dunks sanctified; and Brown’s heavenly stop-and-pop jumper finally given the respect they have long deserved.