SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — I wasn’t sure what to expect during my first visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame over the weekend. I’d attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, had visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (though I vowed not to visit again until Curt Flood is inducted), but never the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The excursion to Springfield, originally intended to support my colleague, Marc Spears, who received the Curt Gowdy Media Award, became an impetus to attend the Saturday evening induction ceremony.
The common thread in each of these Halls of Fame induction celebrations are the speeches where great athletes attempt to put their careers in perspective. The speeches are long but intriguing, sometimes funny, and often offer insight into the beginning, middle and end of the athlete’s sports life. They thank those who have helped along the way, talk about obstacles overcome and how they have tried to adjust to life after sports.
At least two of Saturday’s inductees, former Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and former NBA All-Star Pau Gasol, referred to the difficulty of having spent so many years in extended adolescence, then in their late 30s having to adjust to life outside the arena: not having arenas filled with adoring fans reacting to them night after night for 10 to 15 years.
They often use their speeches to validate their peers. During his captivating speech, famed former Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade spoke admiringly of former guard Allen Iverson, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers for 14 seasons, and reminded the audience of Iverson’s cultural impact on the game. Wade showered Iverson with praise and cited him as reason that he wore No. 3 throughout his career.
Midway through the ceremony, as speeches began to run into each other, it occurred to me that I was in an intimate indoor space where there was a prevailing spirit of like-mindedness and a common purpose among strangers.
There was a refreshing and comforting consensus.
I usually begin my day listening to news and analysis and end the day listening to news and analysis. The news has been polarizing and depressing, compelling many of us to think of attacks on what we call democracy as attacks on freedoms — freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of identification, freedom of knowing and researching our history. Illuminating knowledge, castigated and redefined as “wokeness,” is under attack.
Even the U.S. women’s national team’s loss during the World Cup became fodder for a political attack, with a former president saying the loss is emblematic of the nation’s fall from grace thanks to President Joe Biden’s administration.
This is what we have come to.
On Saturday, Gary Blair, who coached women’s basketball at Texas A&M for 37 years, ended his induction speech by giving thanks for Title IX, because it gave him, and so many women, an opportunity. But in our highly polarized nation, Title IX is being used as a weapon against transgender women who want to compete in athletics. Critics, including politicians, argue that only biological women should be able to compete in women’s sports and that transgender women should not compete against biological women. Critics say that Title IX protects the latter against the former.
Everything has become a battlefield, and that’s why Saturday’s induction ceremony felt like an oasis.
The phenomena of sports is that the games often offer a consensus among strangers, especially at stadiums and arenas. These stadiums and arenas become places where, for three hours, fans put political differences aside to gather and cheer for the home team.
There is consensus.
On Saturday night, there was consensus about the newest Hall of Fame team: Nowitzki belonged. Parker belonged. Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon belonged. Gasol, Wade and Popovich belonged.
Granted, using the crowd at a sporting event as a model for consensus is imprecise and even naive. If I were to survey attendees at Saturday evening’s induction ceremony about their political beliefs — which candidate they support, are they left of center, are they believers in Make America Great Again — I’d likely walk back my theory of camaraderie in the arena. We discovered that 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. Many fans booed, some expressed dissatisfaction with players using platforms to express dissent. Many fans said they came to stadiums to escape from, not to be confronted with political protests for athletes.
They want athletes to just play. Still, I’d like to believe sports at least offers the potential for showing us how we can find a common denominator.
There were no political speeches Saturday evening in Springfield. I’m not sure if organizers cautioned inductees to avoid politics. Blair called for greater representation of women in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Gasol said we have to treat each other better. Popovich, a frequent critic of former president Donald Trump, simply said, “we are in very troubling times and we have to learn how to treat each other better.”
He stopped there.
No one begins their careers thinking that they are going into the Hall of Fame. Popovich used the word “unimaginable” when he began to describe his journey from a kid growing up in East Chicago, Indiana, to a 74-year-old coach being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And he may yet win another title. San Antonio recently drafted Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-5 center who is being hailed as the next NBA phenomenon.
I wondered: Will the 19-year-old Wembanyama be standing here in 20 years? Was he watching?
I wondered whether Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies’ young star who has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, had tuned in and listened to the speeches? Had Morant listened to Wade when he praised Iverson and spoke of redemption? If he did listen, did it make an impact or are there too many miles ahead for Morant to even comprehend what it will take to wind up in Springfield decades from now?
From Canton to Cooperstown to Springfield, these Hall of Fame speeches, while they are sports-specific, are guideposts for young people in any profession. The inductees talk about overcoming the vagaries of their profession, overcoming adversity, putting one foot in front of the other, figuring out how to do what you love and earn a living doing it.
Saturday night was a welcome respite from a political climate that is surely to become more heated in coming months. Rhetoric will likely become more inflammatory, with no one giving in, no one giving a quarter. At the Hall of Fame celebrations, inductees who had been rivals for years expressed deep and abiding respect for one another. They were on different teams during their careers, now they are on one team.
In an atmosphere of contentiousness and polarization, it was great — if only for a few hours — to celebrate consensus.