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SPORTS: Not all basketball greats are getting their due

October 29, 2007

An article in the current Slam magazine caught my eye. Written by Brett Ballantini, it was headlined, "The Hall of Shame."

The hall it was referring to was the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

The gist was that its secretive selection process is preventing eminently worthy candidates from consideration for and ultimately election to the hall.

It cites a "secret cabal of 24 unknown voters" for dereliction of duty, with particular concern for the class of 2007, which didn't include a single player.

Five coaches (including North Carolina's Roy Williams), a referee and a team (1966 NCAA champ Texas Western) were inducted last month. But not one player. What's up with that?

In the interest of full disclosure, I was, for one year, a member of the cabal. It came with serving as president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association in 1999. And yes, I was sworn to secrecy, not allowed to share with anyone my placement on the selection committee until after I had served.

The process was formal and difficult. Nominees come via screening committees to the selection committee. In the year I voted, the candidates were all so impressive that I think I voted for all but a couple. Yet far fewer gathered the necessary 18 votes. I guess I wasn't choosy enough, but my thought was, if the candidate has the credentials, he or she has the credentials.

The point of the Slam article was that the Hall is, indeed, being too selective, particularly when it comes to players. Its Exhibit A of a deserving player not enshrined is Artis Gilmore, the former ABA Kentucky Colonels great. Gilmore has never even made it through the screening process even though he led the ABA and the NBA in career field-goal percentage and was a dominant player for most of his 17 years.

Also bypassed were (former Pacers) Chris Mullin and Adrian Dantley, ex-ABAer Spencer Haywood and ex-Celtic Dennis Johnson. And if you want to think globally, how can Brazil's Oscar Schmidt, only the all-time-leading scorer in professional basketball and Olympic history, not be in the hall?

As for Indiana, as you would hope, the hall is well-stocked with Hoosier natives or connections. The list includes John Wooden (as both a player and a coach), Tony Hinkle (Butler), Piggy Lambert (Purdue), Branch McCracken (IU), Everett Case (Frankfort, North Carolina State), Arthur Trester (IHSAA commissioner), Everett Dean (IU), Clifford Wells (coached two Indiana state champions, then Tulane), Fuzzy Vandivier (Franklin), Arad McCutcheon (Evansville), Clyde Lovellette (Terre Haute, Kansas, NBA), Walt Bellamy (IU, NBA), Bob Knight (IU), Oscar Robertson (Attucks, Cincinnati, NBA) and Larry Bird (Springs Valley, Indiana State, NBA), Fred Zollner (who founded the Fort Wayne ne/Detroit Pistons) and Jack Ramsay (former Pacers coach). Isiah Thomas (two years at IU) and Bob McAdoo (two years at Vincennes) are also in the Hall.

Former Pacer Reggie Miller, when his five-year waiting period is over, is a shoo-in. His sister, Cheryl, already is enshrined.

Still, there are two notable local omissions: Pacers great Roger Brown and, without question, former Pacers coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard.

Brown, now deceased, was once nominated but didn't gather enough votes. His brush with a gambling scandal (which long ago was proved to be much ado about nothing) confined his career to the ABA, but he was one of the great players of all time. Just ask anyone who had to guard the "Rajah" in his prime. My guess is his name will never make it through the screening process again. That's a shame.

An even greater travesty is the omission of Leonard, who both starred and played on a national champion team at IU, then became the ABA's all-time-winningest coach with 529 victories and three championships. Leonard qualifies in any of three areas: as a player, as a coach, or in the category of contributor for "significant contributions to the game of basketball."

Slick just turned 75 and is preparing for yet another year as Mark Boyle's color analyst for Pacers'radio broadcasts. My guess is he couldn't care less about the Naismith hall. All he wants is to see the Pacers winning again.

According to the hall, nominations can be made from now until December. I would hope the Pacers would advance his name and champion his nomination. In the meantime, whoever makes up that next cabal needs to broaden its thinking. This isn't your hall-it belongs to basketball fans everywhere.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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