Hall of Fame still neglecting a few greats
Editor's note: This column was first published in April 2006, about 10 months before the death of Dennis Johnson.
With Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins and Joe Dumars to be inducted, the Basketball Hall of Fame has elected three more NBA players than it did last year, when the Hall was criticized widely for leaving Wilkins and Dumars out in the cold. (Barkley was not yet eligible last year.)
But bringing in 'Nique and Joe D. won't right all the wrongs. The Hall of Fame continues to neglect many of the best players ever.
Here is an All-Star team of the greatest players still waiting for a call from the Hall.
To be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, a candidate must be approved by 18 of 24 members of the honors committee (composed of players, coaches and media members), who are basing their decision on the nominee's "total contribution" to the game.
"There are no black and white criteria," says John Doleva, president of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "Decisions are based as much on quality as on quantity. Players aren't voted in because they played for this many NCAA champions or participated in two NBA Finals or any set criteria."
Jo Jo White, Guard
Every year at this time, when the Basketball Hall of Fame announces its inductees to the Hall of Fame, White gets tense: "I really don't understand what the criteria are; you don't know who's doing the voting, and so you hold your breath. My gut hurts."
At this point, having been passed over for many years, Jo Jo White says he is "numb" to the results.
In White's case, the issue is consistency -- as in, the Hall should be more consistent in its considerations.
Compare White with 2006 selection Dumars. Like Dumars, White won a Finals MVP. In addition, White's career points per game (17.2), assists (4.9) and rebounds (4.0) in the regular season and the playoffs (21.5, 5.7, 4.5) exceed Dumars' totals across the board. (Dumars did register four appearances on the All-Defensive first team.)
But White deserves to be enshrined for two other reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with player comparisons.
The first is his individual slate, and the second is his teams' success.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) boycotting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and Elvin Hayes declining an invitation to try out, the United States had a challenge in maintaining its undefeated record in Olympic play.
Pete Maravich (43.8 points per game) and Calvin Murphy (38.2) were not selected for the United States. White was.
Against the taller, stronger squads of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which had two 7-footers, White and Spencer Haywood spearheaded the attack, and the U.S. won the gold.
"He is probably as complete a player as you would want to run into in a university class," coach Hank Iba said in 1968. "His greatest assets are directing plays and an ability to shoot out on the floor. He is a great pro prospect."
In 1969, popular wisdom said Boston general manager Red Auerbach should be drafting a center to replace the great Bill Russell. And NBA teams shied away from White because he had a two-year military commitment.
Auerbach knew he needed to replace retiring playmaker Sam Jones, though, so he set out to pull some strings in Washington. Suddenly, White was in the Marine Reserves (which carried a June-December obligation) and missed only training camp and the first 12 games of the 1969-70 season. (The next year, Red got his man in the pivot, Dave Cowens.)
White had been used to a walk-the-ball-up pace at Kansas, but he adapted to Boston's fast-breaking style. A speedy wisp of a guard at 6-3 and 190 pounds, he could stutter-step and blow by defenders or pull up on a dime and fire his patented line-drive jumper. He climbed from 12 points a game to 21, then to 23 in three years.
A venomous New York-Boston rivalry flourished, with White going against Walt Frazier and the teams vying for preeminence of the East and meeting in the conference finals from 1972 to 1974.
After losing to New York in 1972 and 1973, the Celtics knocked off an aging Knicks team in '74. They won Game 7 against Milwaukee on the Bucks' court as John Havlicek won Finals MVP honors. The snide remark around the league -- "Let's see Boston win without Russell" -- was laid to rest.
Boston was back in the Finals against Phoenix in 1976. Cowens and Paul Silas punished the Suns off the boards and White dominated the scoring column, averaging 23 points and six assists for the series. He scored 33 points in the fabled Game 5, when Phoenix's Gar Heard hit a shot with a second left in the second overtime and Boston won in three overtimes, 128-126.
It has been called the greatest NBA game ever played, and White's MVP performance in the Finals thus was overshadowed. But in a decade of parity, Boston joined New York as the only other team with two titles in the 1970s. Later, the Celtics recognized White's contributions by retiring his number 10 and raising it to their populated rafters.
Has White slid through the cracks of history? Has he been forgotten by the Hall merely because his career ended 25 years ago?
It would seem so.
Dennis Johnson, Guard
An all-around performer, D.J. played in six NBA Finals and was on the winning side in three of them. He was a five-time All-Star who was named to the All-Defensive first team six times (1979-83 and 1987).
Johnson's deliberate, never frazzled, "What, me worry?" style lent itself to big-game performances. Although Boston's legendary front line of Bird-McHale-Parish is still celebrated, Johnson gets overlooked.
Playing for Seattle against Washington in the 1979 Finals, Johnson undressed the Bullets' guards, registering 25 points per game and blocking 14 shots. The Sonics won in five, and Johnson copped the MVP for the series.
Auerbach got Johnson from Phoenix for backup center Rick Robey and a couple of draft picks in 1983. Red's heist paid immediate dividends.
With Johnson directing traffic, Boston won 62 games and took Los Angeles in the Finals. In Game 4, Johnson contributed mightily with 22 points and 14 assists. In Games 5 and 7, he again scored 22 points.
In fact, as the NBA playoffs approached their historical apex in the 1980s, Johnson played in four consecutive Finals, from 1984 through 1987. Larry Bird said, "Johnson was the smartest player I ever played with."
The duo's in-sync quality was never more evident than when Bird stole Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass in Game 5 of the '87 Eastern Conference finals and found Johnson streaking to the basket for a layup. Two years before, in Game 4 of the 1985 Finals, Bird had been double-teamed and found Johnson for a game-winning 18-footer as time expired.
The only guards with more NBA All-Defensive awards are Michael Jordan (nine), Gary Payton (nine) and Frazier (seven). Like Frazier, Johnson will be recalled as a rounded, heady, clutch player who was essential to the championship teams on which he played.
Bernard King, Forward
At his rapid-fire peak -- three scorching years in New York from 1983 through 1985 -- King was an irrepressible offensive force.
"There has not been a better post-up 6-6 or 6-7 player in the league than Bernard King," says Hubie Brown, who coached him in New York from 1983 to 1985.
In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Brown recalled King's "complete book" of offensive moves, including a lightning quick catch-turn-release and an up-and-under -- not to mention his ability to finish on the fast break, where he was a no-frills blur swooping to the basket.
"In my lifetime of coaching, he is one of the two assassins that I have been fortunate to coach," Brown adds. "Neither pressure, defensive alignments nor game situations were going to prevent him from scoring or doing something sensational."
Brown continued: "He and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] were the two players I coached who demanded the ball with their eyes. King was never a vocal leader; he led by example -- in his practice habits and his focus during the game and his ability to execute under extreme pressure."
Anyone watching the Knicks from 1983 to 1985, more than a decade after their peak, was treated to a Kingly feast on a nightly basis. Easily the greatest offensive player in franchise history, King gifted his mates with 60 against New Jersey on Christmas Day 1984. Before King, New York could never boast a player who averaged 30 points per game, nor one who poured in 50 points in back-to-back games, as King did against San Antonio and Dallas in 1984. All told, in three seasons with New York, he scored 40 or more 23 times.
His playoff performances included a record-setting five-gamer against Detroit in 1984 in which he averaged 42.6 for the series (later bested by Jordan's 45.2 against Cleveland in 1988).
In March 1985, with the Knicks all but eliminated from the playoff hunt, King hustled back on a fast break and -- in an attempt to block a shot -- ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. King led the league in scoring that year but didn't return until two seasons later.
Studying his own injury, and rehabilitating with the same tenacity with which he played, King reinvented himself with a face-the-basket attack. He averaged 28.4 points and made the All-Star team as a member of the Washington Bullets in 1991.
Adrian Dantley, Forward
Dantley has been nominated four times but has never received the welcome call from Springfield.
"I'm not surprised," Dantley said. "Someone called and said, 'Be patient.'"
"I know the ballplayers who I played against who are in the Hall of Fame. I know what I did against Clyde Drexler when he came to Utah and against James Worthy."
Just 6-5, Dantley was nonetheless a dominant low-post player.
He is one of the few basketball players in history to average 30 points a game for four straight seasons (1980-81 to 1983-84), and he led the league in scoring twice.
Noting that Dantley was "one of the most undersized power forwards ever to play the game," Brown nonetheless pointed out Dantley's post-up prowess: "He not only put up the points year in and year out but he got to the line and was such a great foul shooter."
Dantley's seven-year body of work in Utah was a marvel to behold. Before Karl Malone became Utah's iron man, Dantley put up consecutive scoring averages of 28, 31, 30, 31, 31, 27 and 30 on 54 percent shooting. He led the league in free throws five times and, in 1984, tied Wilt Chamberlain's record for 28 free throws in a game. In the 1984 playoffs, he scored 32 points per game.
He did it all with a simple formula.
"I took the bigger players outside, and the smaller ones inside," he says.
Several weeks before his 33rd birthday, Dantley, then playing for Detroit, was averaging 19 points per game but was shipped to Dallas for forward Mark Aguirre. Four months later, the Pistons were capturing their first of consecutive NBA titles without Dantley. Dantley blamed Thomas for going to management and engineering the trade for Aguirre, a longtime friend. "Everybody knows what went on there," Dantley says.
If nothing else, Dantley's career illustrates how chance plays a role, even in a great career. Had he not been traded from Detroit in February 1989, he likely would have played on one title team, maybe two, and his career might be perceived much differently.
Artis Gilmore, Center
Gilmore is the greatest eligible center not in the Hall of Fame.
"I have no idea why he's not in," said Brown, who coached Gilmore with Kentucky, including in 1975, when the Colonels won the ABA championship. "He's the most dominant center in the history of the ABA. He dominated college basketball at Gardner-Webb Junior College, then at Jacksonville, and was the Most Valuable Player in the 1975 playoffs. In the playoffs, he posted overpowering statistics, averaging 24 points and 18 rebounds. He was All-ABA first team five years in a row.
"In the NBA, he revitalized the Chicago franchise and played for a great team in San Antonio with [George] Gervin. But San Antonio couldn't get past the Lakers, who went to the Finals in eight of 10 years.
"He was extremely coachable, a hard worker, and got along with his peers. He played big in big games. So I don't understand why he is snubbed [by the Hall of Fame]. I have difficulty with that, because I don't know what else he could have done. I don't know what else to say, other than I don't know who is presenting his case. How your case is presented is important."
Could it be that he played so long in the ABA?
If so, we've had enough already of this canard that the ABA was some vastly inferior league.
If it was, why were eight former ABA players in the All-Star Game in 1977, the first year of the ABA-NBA merger?
"What can I say?" Gilmore says about his not being inducted. "I think everything has been said for quite a while. It's not the ABA and NBA Hall of Fame, it's the Basketball Hall of Fame. It would be a tremendous honor, but I'm insulated from the [voting] process. The statistics and accomplishments should stand up under that scrutiny."
One of the strongest men ever to set foot on a basketball court, Gilmore set records at every level. He averaged 38 points per game in high school, scoring 75 in one game. To this day, he holds the NCAA career record with 22.7 rebounds per game.
In 1970, he led the Jacksonville Dolphins to the NCAA championship game, where they lost to UCLA, 80-69. Gilmore posted 16 rebounds and 19 points, but UCLA harassed him into 9-of-29 shooting. He still was selected for the All-Tournament team.
His 16,330 rebounds are fourth all-time in pro ball, behind only Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. He scored 24,041 points. The two totals combined are good enough for seventh place in history.
Gilmore is the game's all-time leader in field goal accuracy at .599.
He was one of three members of the 20,000-point, 10,000-rebound club who didn't make the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. The other two were Walt Bellamy and Dan Issel. Both of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Jo Jo White, Dennis Johnson, Bernard King, Adrian Dantley and Artis Gilmore -- that's my quintet of snubbed Hall of Famers. I'll trot them out there against 'most anyone and take my chances.
Kenneth Shouler is the editor of and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.
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