Hall of Fame Has Local Flavor
I'll be in Springfield, Mass., on Friday for the enshrinement of possibly the greatest class to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Michael Jordan is the headliner, obviously, with him regarded by most as the best to ever play the game. But fellow original Dream Team members David Robinson and John Stockton are no slouches and Jerry Sloan is the greatest coach in NBA history to never win a championship.
Stockton is the only member of that quartet that doesn't have any local ties. I wrote about Jordan's failed two-year tenure earlier this week, and the Chicago Tribune tackled the subject in an excellent special section that breaks down Jordan's career in 12 parts (Jordan's days in Washington are fittingly summed up in Chapter 11). Slam Magazine also looked into that forgettable final stage of his career. But Jordan isn't the only member of this Hall of Fame class to spend part of his career with the Wizards/Bullets franchise.
Sloan is known as "The Original Bull" because he was the first player the Chicago Bulls drafted in the expansion draft in 1966. But his career began in 1965 with the Baltimore Bullets, who drafted him out of Evansville the year before only to watch him return to college for his senior year. A few years ago, Sloan spoke with Mike Wise and me about his rookie season with the Bullets. Wise wrote that Sloan made $12,500 his first season and had a difficult time dealing with losing.
"My first basketball game here in Baltimore, this is 1965," Sloan begins. His teammates told him then, "It was no big deal to lose your first game."
"I was heartbroken," he said. "They said, 'We only got 78 games left or something like that.' I thought, 'Wow, that's really weak.' I felt bad. I didn't get to play very much, but I felt bad. I was always taught, growing up, that you play this game to win. You put everything you have into it. If you don't like it, get another job."
Did we mention Sloan fouled out of six of the first seven games he played with the Bullets?
He has one more year left on his current contract and hasn't committed to returning. Sloan plays down his longevity, too, saying Stockton and Malone were behind most of it. "I was spoiled," he said. "No question about it. I thought it was all my coaching." When he was asked a year ago how a perfectionist like himself could hang around for 20 years, he smiled.
"People said I would never be able to coach in this league because I'd get too frustrated," Sloan said.
Sloan, of course, has gone on to lead the Utah Jazz for 21 seasons, reaching two NBA Finals and recording the fourth-most coaching wins in NBA history (1,137). Unlike when he cut ties with Jordan, Pollin actually regretted leaving Sloan available in the expansion draft and watching him go on to make two all-star appearances in Chicago. Sloan said Pollin never expressed that feeling to him until a chance encounter after the Wizards defeated the Jazz last November. Sloan told me that he hadn't spoken to Pollin in more than 40 years before that brief chat.
"You're the guy I drafted here," Pollin said. "I made a mistake and let you go."
"I had a fun time while I was here," Sloan told Pollin.
David Robinson never played professionally in this area, but he grew up in Manassas and went on to become an All-American and Naismith and Wooden Award winner playing at the Naval Academy. Think about that. The guy led Navy to the Elite Eight in 1986. Not Maryland or Virginia or Georgetown. Navy. In his final collegiate game, Robinson had 50 points with 13 rebounds and two blocked shots in a loss to Michigan. Then he went on to go No. 1 overall to the San Antonio Spurs, where he won a scoring title, an MVP award and two NBA championships.
It's amazing how Robinson blossomed so late (he was 6-foot-6 as a high school senior and left college standing 7-1). I had to do a little digging and I found an old story that Michael Wilbon wrote about whether Robinson was the real deal during the 1986 NCAA Tournament. I had to chuckle when I read a quote from one of the people Wilbon interviewed. Wizards fans should be familiar with him.
Those who questioned Robinson's ability during the regular season said that he didn't play against big-time teams every night, rarely saw an opposing pivotman taller than 6-8, wasn't aggressive enough and was short on experience, which supposedly would show up in the postseason. Obviously, that hasn't happened.
"Last year, I thought he was potentially the best center in the country," said American University Coach Ed Tapscott, whose team plays in the Colonial Athletic Association with Navy. "This year, I think he is the best. I know people still have questions. But his performance in the NCAA tournament ought to dispel all the damn questions."
Tapscott was one of several people interviewed who said that Robinson's athleticism sets him apart from other 7-footers. Although Naval Academy officials haven't been able to find the exact time, it is widely believed here that Robinson holds one of the best marks in the Navy obstacle course.
Robinson still demonstrates gymnastic maneuvers for the plebes. And [Navy] Coach Paul Evans tells the story about the time Robinson came back from an exhibition tour of Spain with a new trick. "We went to a Hardee's one day and David said, 'Coach, look what I picked up in Spain.' And he walked from the car to the restaurant on his hands."
I'm hoping that tonight's festivities will be just as entertaining.
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