This year I was invited to participate in the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions of Jamaal Wilkes and Ralph Sampson and the panel discussion about the UCLA Bruin dynasty. It was a pleasure.
The trip to Springfield, Mass., was a chance to catch up with old friends, to hear in detail how my NBA rights were determined and to reflect on my basketball peers and the game, which has played such an important role in my life.
I got to know Jamaal while he was still a student at UCLA and a member of coach John Wooden's dominating teams. In 1977, we became teammates on the Lakers, and our friendship endures. I never got to spend a lot of personal time with Ralph, but we were still able to get to know each other over the years, first as opposing players (I was the veteran, he was the new kid in the lane) and then as members of the basketball community. More important, Ralph and Jamaal both brought their families with them. For Jamaal, that included his mom, wife and three children. For Ralph, it included his wife, sons, sisters and friends.
In addition, I got a chance to hang out with Dr. Richard Lapchick, who has made it his life's work to examine the role of sports in our society and to challenge the sports world on the issues of diversity and inclusion. I've known Dr. Lapchick for 50 years, since the summer of 1962. At that time we were New York City high school students, dreaming of maybe going to college and playing the game that we loved. Richard ended up at St. John's, where his father, Joe Lapchick, was the head coach. He did play on the freshman team, but he decided to give up playing and take on the task of raising consciousness as to what sports means to us as a society. He has been able to point out the good, bad and ugly aspects of amateur and professional sports (and has written and spoken about these issues for ESPN). I am really glad that the HOF recognized the importance of Dr. Lapchick's work and awarded him the Mannie Jackson-Basketball's Human Spirit Award.
During the course of many conversations over the weekend, I also heard firsthand about the 1969 coin flip between the division losers that sent me to Milwaukee. Jerry Colangelo, GM of the Phoenix Suns, who had finished last at 16-66 in the Western Conference, said that commissioner Walter Kennedy flipped the coin and caught it in his right hand. The Phoenix Suns had called "heads," giving the Bucks "tails." Jerry says the coin landed in the commissioner's hand "heads up," but the commissioner then turned the coin over to place it on the back of his other hand, and in doing so turned the coin "tails up."
Jerry said he doesn't dwell on the past, but he has wondered at times what would have happened if the coin had been allowed to hit the floor to determine the winner. We'll never know. I must say, though, that I was rooting for Jerry's baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, when they beat the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. I felt that karma was a factor in the Diamondbacks' win, and it finally gave the city of Phoenix a championship that it had deserved.
As I reflect on the latest of many trips to Springfield and the many inductees I know personally, I'm beginning to get a feel for the character of the Hall of Famers. So many of those who are inducted have one quality that seems to stand out in my mind: humility. Humility is not always obvious in a person, and many of the Hall of Famers were kind of cocky when they were making their mark during their careers. But retirement brings out the inner qualities that enabled them to overcome the many hurdles that stood between them and success. Seeing people like Earl Monroe, Tiny Archibald, Chet Walker and Mel Daniels reminded me of the challenges that they faced and overcame.
Chet Walker was a perfect example. In his speech, he spoke about the South and the severe limitations Jim Crow laws placed on hopes for success when he was a child. Chet's mom understood the bad odds and decided to take her family to Michigan. There, the odds were a lot better for her children, and the prospect of getting a good education and having the opportunity to play sports changed his family's future. Chet went on to attend Bradley University and become an All-America forward. He was an NBA All-Star forward and member of the 1967 world champion Philadelphia 76ers. After a stellar career in the NBA, he became a moviemaker.
Chet was overlooked by the selection committee for too long, but common sense prevailed, and he has finally made it into the Hall of Fame. To this day he has maintained his humility and positive attitude. His story is typical of inductees. I am proud to be considered as one of his peers.
My own memories of the Hall of Fame are mixed. It, of course, was a great honor to be chosen, but for me it was a poignant moment for another reason. My mom, dad, kids and several friends came to Springfield for my induction. That ended up as the last trip that I took with my mom before she died. I was inducted in September of 1995.
My mother passed away some 18 months later. So for that and so many other reasons, my HOF journey was a special time in my life.
I'm glad that the people who manage the HOF share the game with fans. By acknowledging basketball history and the people and events that have defined it, they are doing their part to celebrate hoops as the popular game it has become in every corner of the world.