Open the doors

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Bob Knight is not pleased with the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, in which he was enshrined as a member in 1991.

Not that the Springfield, Mass. museum is going to change anything because of the criticism.

Knight has long been a proponent of forgotten greatness, the old coach or player that isn’t fully appreciated. This time, though, he is pushing the most high profile candidate of them all, broadcaster Dick Vitale, one of 15 finalists for enshrinement this year. This is Vitale’s third time as a finalist as a “contributor” to the game.

"It doesn’t matter whether you like Dick Vitale or not," said the Texas Tech coach Monday. "Who has promoted college basketball more than he has?"

Whether you agree or not isn’t Knight’s problem. He’s troubled that he can’t get his opinion – or the opinion of the who’s who of college coaches he’s lined up – in front of the 24 Hall of Fame voters who will make the final decision that will be announced on April 2.

The voters are not just anonymous – to both the public and each other – but letters of recommendation are not part of the decision making process, even ones from Hall of Famers such as Knight. And that’s where the Hall of Fame, he said, has it all wrong.

The honors committee is presented just a standardized "resume" written by the Hall's staff that ranges from one to three pages in an effort to keep things uniform and fair. The information is culled from nomination materials and additional research by the museum. It is both the fairest system, said Hall president John Doleva and the most expedient since there is no need to review what would be hundreds of additional documents.

"The process can’t be influenced by who yells the loudest, who has the prettiest (application) book and who has the most letters," said Doleva. "Everyone is on a level playing field."

But Knight thinks it fails to account for the nuances of each candidate, particularly for a Hall of Fame that considers candidates from not just the NBA and men’s college basketball, but high school, women’s basketball and the International game.

“A resume might say Dick Vitale worked for ESPN for 27 years,” said Knight. “But does that mean as much as a bunch of Hall of Fame coaches saying he was a tremendous contributor to college basketball?”

With that in mind Knight got what he believes is every living Hall of Fame college coach to write a letter of support for Vitale last year. The list is as diverse as it is impressive and includes Pete Newell, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, John Chaney, Don Haskins, Lute Olson, Denny Crum and Jim Boeheim.

John Wooden, 95 years old at the time, even sent a hand-written letter that declared, “Dick has steadfastly contributed to the growth of this great sport and richly deserves recognition.” Wooden later declared it would be “an injustice” if Vitale were to be left out.

“I think when credible people are supporting someone, that is a hell of a thing,” said Knight.

He argues that limiting supporting material isn’t unfair just to Vitale, but to anyone without a traditional background easy to judge.

Doleva assures that the rotating group of voters are extremely reputable and include Hall of Famers – “we have the right people,” he said. But Knight argues they can’t know everything about everyone, something testimonials would help correct.

“Not all the selectors are well versed,” he said. “If a guy who was a player 40 years ago is nominated, how are they supposed to know if he was good without people telling them? If a player from Yugoslavia is up, do these guys know what the hell he did?”

Doleva counters that the current system is both painstaking and the only fair system, or else connections, popularity or even power can influence the process.

Four “screening committees” pare the nominated parties (108 this year) down to the finalists (15 this year). Then the honors committee votes by mail and then, “our accountant certifies the votes and then we destroy the ballot,” said Doleva. It takes 18 of 24 votes to be enshrined.

The Hall prides itself on its anonymity. The honors committee never actually meets and the voters don’t even know who else has a vote. It prevents them from being leaned on by outside people or even other voters. Plus, after the vote comes in, they have no fear of scrutiny or even payback by those who didn’t get in.

“We’re trying to keep the process as pristine as possible. We don’t divulge the members of the screening or honors committees. That way they can’t be politicked and can’t politick or trade votes,” said Doleva, who notes there is no movement to change the process.

“If they start getting letters, emails and condemned in the press after for making tough decisions we would lose our pool of voters.”

But to Knight’s point, a candidate like Vitale might serve as a perfect example. Where Knight and others see a tireless proponent of the game and its coaches, others may see something else.

Some voters may penalize him for his broadcast style or the belief that media shouldn’t be allowed in the Hall (former Los Angeles Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn was enshrined in 2003). Others may think that he is as interested in promoting himself and his various business ventures – he does commercials, acts and sells personal merchandise – as much as basketball itself.

Or maybe some just don’t like the guy. With Vitale, at this point, most opinions, positive or negative, are set in stone.

But Knight argues that when someone can get a recommendation from John Wooden and John Chaney – two very different people – it ought to prove there is more to him than meets the eye, or in this case the ear.

“Why wouldn’t a letter from every coach who is alive and in the Hall of Fame matter?” Knight said. “I can’t believe a guy can be any better supported than Dick Vitale.”