Welcome to the Basketball Hall of Lame
April 8, 2009 by Matt Thomas • Print Story •
I am what you would call a basketball Puritan, a traditionalist of sorts that believes in the value of rules, intangibles, and team achievement over individual glory. While I see an inherent value to in-depth statistical analysis, PER, and plus/minus ratings, I fail to see how those contemporary evaluation methods can be used to measure the number of loose balls a hustling Shane Battier tracks down or the value Derek Fisher's heart brings to clutch late-game situations.
Over the years, David Stern has been every bit the ideal commissioner for purists such as myself. His unwavering dedication to preserving the image of the NBA has provided a stability and consistency that is unlike any of the other major sports. While there have been subtle changes in the message — targeting the inner city in recent years, the effort in the early 1990s to showcase television and movie stars as NBA fans, the globalization of basketball, etc. — the underlying intent has always been to highlight the teams rather than the players, the rivalries rather than the accomplishments, and the league as a living, breathing, caring, unified whole rather than as a group of individuals. By and large, this formula has worked brilliantly; it has been a master stroke of genius by a maestro of a business man leading one of the most lucrative entertainment industries in the world. He has run the league perfectly and stood behind the simple mantra, "it's just good business."
Ironically, it is likely that the very rigidity that has buoyed the sport and the NBA brand, the ironclad consistency that I am celebrating above, that leads me to the level of disappointment reverberating through my traditionalist being upon hearing the announcement of the 2009 NBA Hall of Fame class. In short, Commissioner Stern has failed the NBA and its image as a result of his steadfast commitment to not making any exceptions. How, you ask? Read on.
Michael Jeffrey Jordan is an iconoclast of sorts. For those of us who see basketball as a form of religion, Jordan became that one entity that lay to waste the traditional ideas and beliefs we all harbored relative to the sport. A singular talent who could singularly shift your core values with little more than a breathtaking dunk, fade-away jump shot, or mesmerizing reverse layup.
Don't believe me? Find yourself a tape of the 1986 game two contest between the Bulls and the Celtics. I grew up in Maine — decidedly Celtics territory — and my favorite player was Danny Ainge of all people. To me, Ainge exemplified hustle, team play, and those other intangibles that made me love the game from an early age. I used to sit by the radio and scribe the stats from Johnny Most's gravelly play-by-play calls into an old notebook just so I could feel like I was a part of Celtic lore. Nothing could change my perception — at least not until that game.
Jordan was incredible. Awe-inspiring. Amazing. Astonishing. Extraordinary. Superhuman. Inconceivable. None of those adjectives do his performance any justice. Only one does: transcendent. And not the definition reading "going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding" or even the one that defines the meaning as "superior or supreme." I'm talking about transcendent, as in "above all possible modes of the infinite" or "not realizable in human experience." Jordan scored 63 points against undeniably the best team defense in basketball on a Bulls team that had exactly zero other scoring options. And it wasn't a Kobe Bryant 63; Jordan wasn't much of a jump-shooter back then. It was crossover dribbles, fade-away shots, lay-ups in traffic, and the like. It was scoring over double-teams and triple-teams, over 6'2" Dennis Johnson and 6'9" Larry Bird, in transition, and in the half-court sets. In the playoffs, no less, against the team that was to go on to be crowned NBA champion.
It was the game that made me a Michael Jordan super-fan. As a point of reference, as a Rocket fan now, I see Kobe Bryant torch us frequently. His moves are Jordan-esque, his scoring ability is breathtaking, and unmatched in today's game. He moves with fluidity and ease and grace and he does so without self-glorification and with a decency that is rare these days. Yet I can't like the guy. I root against him. Even when on his 81-point jag against the Raptors a few years back, I just wasn't lost in his game the way I was with Jordan's. M.J. changed me and my beliefs and my values. And I wasn't alone.
That trip down memory lane isn't without motive. As transcendent as Jordan was to me and millions of fans like me, he was equally transcendent to the game and the sport and the league. Before the Jordan-boom, there were no personal shoe sponsorships (Converse, the primary sneaker sponsor for the league, marketed team-based lines of shoes using your favorite team's colors to appeal to the masses). Jordan's singular stardom and unmatched manner of carrying himself as the league's ambassador allowed the NBA and its sponsors to single him out without compromising the image of the league.
We, the public, all understood, "this guy is different." Pre-Jordan salaries rarely soared over $3 million. Post Jordan-boom salaries rocketed into the tens of millions of dollars range. Except his own, mind you (Jordan made over $4 million in salary for a grand total of two years of his career). This is what makes him so transcendent: even when his influence changes the very rules we operate under, he furthers the legend by not conforming to his self-induced rule changes!
What is the point to all of this? Simply put, to enshrine Michael Jordan into the Hall of Fame with anyone other than Michael Jordan is an insult to his legacy. John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, C. Vivian Stringer — they are all so very deserving of the honor of being named Hall of Famers. But they should wait their turn. The rules dictate they are eligible in 2009, which is exactly why they were picked, but they and their accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Jordan. I know I will get lots of comments about how wrong I am and how I can't possibly be sane in belittling the accomplishments of these others, and that is fine. To me, I am not belittling anybody's accomplishments, just giving a legendary figure like none other in his sport the due he has earned. If you don't agree, you either didn't see Jordan play enough or you aren't a basketball fan, it is that simple.
Watching Jordan's games won't tell the whole story. You have to watch Jordan's moments. You have to see Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Dave Corzine, Bill Wennington, Ron Harper, Brad Sellers, Jason Caffey, Jud Buechler, Luc Longley, Brian Williams, B.J. Armstrong, Bobby Hansen, Stacey King, Cliff Levingston, Will Perdue, and Craig Hodges play without M.J. by their side to appreciate what he did as a teammate. He made Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant perennial all-stars. He made Dennis Rodman palatable to the public. There will be others that have the same, or better, skills. LeBron James, for one, could well be statistically more valuable as an all-around player and game-changer. Kobe is every bit as good a scorer and a better shooter than Jordan ever was. There will be others. But no single player will ever come around that redefines the value of a single player the way Jordan did, because Jordan already did it.
Yes, no man is greater than the game itself, I get that, but putting M.J. in alone to give him the singular stage he created for himself as a player and as a marketing tool is not putting him above the game. You see, Mr. Stern, we all understand "this guy is different" so a temporary shift in policy wouldn't come across as pandering or cajoling.
It would come across as exactly what it is: just good business.