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Dan Devine

BDL at the HoF: Identity, truth and enshrining the Class of 2010

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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SPRINGFIELD - When he got to the microphone, Larry Bird griped about how, "just like always," Magic Johnson only left him 20 seconds to speak.

He got more than that - because in Massachusetts, nobody will ever tell Larry Bird to stop talking, or doing anything. But as it turns out, 20 seconds was plenty of time to deliver the line of the night at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame's Class of 2010 Induction Ceremony.

After Johnson, who was selected to the Hall as an individual in 2002, offered his expected brand of vibrant, loquacious remembrances of the 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, he left it to Bird to put the finishing touches on the Dream Team's mass enshrinement.

The Boston Celtics legend, a member of the Class of '98 as a solo artist, congratulated all of the night's honorees - his Dream Team colleagues Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone; WNBA great Cynthia Cooper; legendary high school coach Bob Hurley Sr.; Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss; posthumous honorees Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson and Brazilian star Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira; and the 1960 version of the U.S. men's Olympic team, led by co-captains Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, that won gold in the Rome Olympics.

Yeah, he congratulated the 1960 team, all right.

"You know, there's a lot of debate going around [about] who had the best team, the ones in the '60s or the one in 1992," Bird said, echoing a note that fellow Dream Teamer Charles Barkley sounded at a Friday morning press conference. The 1960 team dominated all eight games it played, rolling up an average margin of victory of 42 points. In 1992, the margin inched up to 44.

The Dream Team's Malone said his boys would take '60 by 20 points. Co-captain West, shall we say, disagreed, pointing out in both the morning presser and Friday night induction speech how much tougher '60 had it - staying in dorms during a broiling Italian heat wave rather than top-of-the-line hotels in Barcelona, making a $1 per diem ("Magic and Michael, I think you two did a little better than that," he quipped) and generally living without all the amenities of the modern (read: pampered) athlete.

Bird, of course, felt compelled to respond.

"I don't know who had the best team, but I know the team in 1960 was a hell of a lot tougher than we were," Bird said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Because I couldn't imagine the '92 team getting in them covered wagons for eight days, going across the country, jumping in the Atlantic Ocean, swimming for six days, then walking 3,000 miles to the Colosseum in Rome - for a dollar a day."

(PRO TIP: LegendZings burn worse than regular zings because they have to travel all the way from French Lick to buzz your nugget.)

It was a great moment, not only because the Symphony Hall crowd responded with its biggest laugh of the night, but also because it underscored the overarching theme of the evening: Honoring the game and yourself by staying true to your essential nature.

West had to stake his claim for the '60 squad because he's Jerry West, one of the most singularly competitive athletes in sports history, and for him, the Dream Team's aggression will not stand, man. Bird had to shut it down with a withering comeback because he's Larry Bird - beneath the farm boy façade, always a showman and a closer. Magic had to bubble over with effusive praise for each of his Dream Team running mates, from Barkley to Michael Jordan to Chris Mullin, because he's ineluctably Magic, always cranked up to 11 and pumping through your speakers full-blast.

(NOTE: Christian Laettner - the Dream Team's lone college kid and ostensible mascot - caught the short end of the Magic stick: "I remember the first day of practice, brother, and Charles Barkley hit you so hard and you went down to your knees, and he said, 'Welcome to the NBA, young fella.'" And then everybody had a hearty laugh, because it's pretty fun to laugh at Christian Laettner.)

David Stern had to wave off Magic's invitation to stand in recognition of allowing the Dream Teamers to participate in the Barcelona games and shaking his head at Johnson calling him "the greatest in all of sports." Dennis Rodman had to eschew formal attire decorum by deciding to rock Rhinestone Cowboy garb.

They had to because these people are who they are. They ain't changing now, and they ain't changing ever. They help make the game our game -- they help make its identity our identity.

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The tone was tone set by Scottie Pippen, who had to deliver a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional-but-reserved speech to start the evening because, well, Scottie's got it like that.

Ever graceful, ever smooth, ever easy despite the difficult road he had to travel - no scholarship offers, walking on at the University of Central Arkansas, always (perhaps unfairly) viewed as the G.O.A.T.'s Robin, having to prove himself every step of the way. A case study in grace 'til the casket drops.

"I played this game that I love so much, and everything I had, I laid it out there," said Pippen, presented for induction by longtime running buddy Jordan. "I've also tried to live my life in a way that will make the people I love and care about proud of me. I have so much to be thankful for. I have been able to live my dream of playing basketball, surrounded by people I love and being cheered on by the best fans in the world. It was a great ride."

After choking up, then quickly composing himself, Pippen nodded slowly and looked out to the audience: "For all of this, I say, thank God and thank you."

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Karl Malone had to speak plainly, directly and with a stirring resonance, because his titanic marble-hewn frame has always surrounded a highly emotional core. And he had to cry, despite his stated preference for the contrary, because he had to go out the way he came in.

"Couple things I said I wasn't gonna do - I wasn't gonna talk long and I wasn't gonna cry," Malone said, dabbing his eyes with a black handkerchief and looking through tears toward the audience and Barcelona teammate Barkley. "But, Charles, I lost the bet."

Malone emphasized his North Louisiana roots, making sure to note that his route ran from "Summerfield, La., by way of Mount Sinai, La., to Ruston, La.," where he played college ball at Louisiana Tech before embarking on a stellar career with the Utah Jazz (plus a postgraduate year with the Los Angeles Lakers). The man who presented him for enshrinement, fellow Hall of Famer Willis Reed - "I say Mister Willis Reed, because I'm respectful," Malone said - hails from nearby Bernice, La.

The second-leading scorer in NBA history acknowledged that Induction Day held (and will always hold) a bittersweet duality for him; the date marked the seven-year anniversary of the passing of his mother, Shirley, who raised him largely by herself.

"I wouldn't lie to you if I tell you that ... my mom was my mom, my dad, my hero," Malone said, welling up. "I just want to say that I'm here because of her. ... It was not about me. It was about trying to do something to make everybody proud."

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Dr. Jerry Buss had to come off like the cat that ate the canary, because everything's been coming up Milhouse for him for round about the last 40 years.

Standing onstage - shirt untucked, no tie, forever evoking Rip Taylor-cum-Cesar Romero with Uncle Scrooge bank - and about to join the ranks of the immortals, he made sure everyone knew he fully appreciated how unlikely and remarkable his journey has been.

"I'm probably happier than anyone [here], because most of the people that come up here have an inkling of the idea that someday they may make the Hall of Fame," the Lakers' irrepressible owner said with a laugh. "Believe me, when I was 21, I never thought I'd be enshrined with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird [and] Michael Jordan."

Buss bullet-pointed his road to Springfield: Undergrad studies at Wyoming, a Ph.D. in chemistry at USC, making "a lot of money in real estate" and pursuing minor-league ownership. In 1979, he bought the Lakers; the next year, the franchise drafted Magic out of Michigan State and won an NBA title. "By now, I was beginning to feel that I was walking on a golden path," he said.

In Buss' 31 years of ownership, the Lakers have featured stars like Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Pat Riley, Shaquille O'Neal(notes), Kobe Bryant(notes), Phil Jackson "and a Spanish future Hall of Famer named [Pau] Gasol," and won a total of 10 NBA crowns, including the last two.

The doctor smiled. "Life is good; life is sweet," he said.

***

Bob Hurley Sr. had to deliver a speech littered with self-effacing jokes (saying he'd asked presenter Mike Krzyzewski to deliver the speech for him, saying he appreciated the support he'd received because "I need all the support I can get," etc.) that shunted attention and praise away from him, because for the former parole officer and longtime coach, the story's never been about him. It's always been about the kids, the institution and the game.

"The Jersey City that I remember from 1968 and the Jersey City of 2010 are very, very different," said Hurley, who has become a coaching and teaching legend during his 43-year tenure (38 years running the varsity) at St. Anthony High School. "But I think the kids are the same. I think the kids want to be coached. They want to try to be successful."

Success and St. Anthony's have long been synonymous, despite the annual hardships Hurley has faced at the resource-strapped inner-city Catholic school. He's led the Friars to nearly 1,000 wins, 25 New Jersey state parochial championships and three USA Today national high school titles. Most importantly, nearly all of the players Hurley has coached have gone on to college.

After thanking Reebok for enabling his varsity team to travel from Jersey and watch the ceremony, Hurley made clear that although he's now enshrined alongside basketball's titans, he's still just a fan.

"I have 13 kids who came up yesterday ... they were chasing some of the Hall of Famers last night, trying to get pictures," Hurley said, drawing laughs from the crowd. "I know in one lobby, they were annoying everybody that they could, and I apologize for that. But if I was there, I would've done the exact same thing."

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Cynthia Cooper had to let go with both vocal barrels for nine minutes, invoking deceased family members watching her in heaven on a flat-screen in HD (because "that's how God does it"), cracking jokes on the Mailman ("My Jheri curl was not as bad as your [draft] suit, Karl") and striking inspirational notes ("Something special happens when you believe in you"), because her enshrinement - in fact, her entire being - represents the once-unthinkable culmination of a long race exceedingly well run.

Cooper's pursuit of roundball excellence took her from Watts to USC to Spain to Italy to Houston and finally to Springfield, as the first WNBA player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Her speech was more than just a victory lap. She was probably talking about the long lead-up to taking the podium when she said, "I thought I was gonna go crazy waiting so long before I was able to speak," but she may as well have been referring to the moment itself, the cathartic release of a rubber band pulled taut for nearly 30 years.

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Perry Johnson, little brother of the late Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson, who died in 1987 at age 48, had to give the kind of warm, engaging, gently rambling speech that he did, because to him, Gus was Superman.

He wasn't necessarily alone in that assessment - it was shared by a pair of pretty reliable sources, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Wes Unseld, who presented Perry's brother for induction. In a prefatory video clip, Monroe called Gus Johnson "one of the best defensive forwards ever." Unseld added, "He had a presence that told you you were dealing with a man."

"From the president to Joe the Wino, [Gus] talked to everybody," Perry Johnson said, beaming at the memory of his brother. "I mean, he loved people, and people loved him."

Those who spoke for the other posthumous honorees offered similarly heartfelt remarks.

"I'm just here to say thanks for my brother," said Gary Johnson, brother of Celtics and Seattle SuperSonics great Dennis Johnson, who died in 2007 at age 52. "The NBA family is just fantastic; we've been treated just like family these last couple of days ... I love you guys, and I love you guys for loving my brother."

He also extended a special thanks to Barkley for keeping DJ's name and memory alive through frequent references on TNT's NBA broadcasts in recent years - many of which claimed it was "shameful" that the 1979 NBA Finals MVP had not already been enshrined.

Luciano Pereira spoke on behalf of his father, Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira, a versatile big man whose leadership for Brazil during the 1960s and '70s earned him the nickname "The King."

"Ubiratan's love of playing for the Brazilian national team was so great that in 1968, he declined an offer to play in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers," Luciano Pereira said, recounting the brilliant international career that earned his father induction into the FIBA Hall of Fame last year. "Ubiratan's family, his fans [and] Brazilian basketball thanks the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for the decision to recognize the talent of this valuable Brazilian player."

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