SPRINGFIELD — Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Bill Fitch, who led the Celtics to the 1981 NBA title and won more than 900 games, won’t be able to attend his induction because of health reasons.
He’ll be watching from his Conroe, Texas, home along with mentee, and current Mavericks coach, Rick Carlisle. It’s not the first time declining health has prevented an inductee from being present to give a speech.
Six years ago, legendary college coaches Jerry Tarkanian, 83, and Guy V. Lewis, 91, attended their inductions bound to wheelchairs and were unable to give speeches because of health issues. Four years ago, Celtics great Jo Jo White, a year removed from brain surgery, gave his speech in a pre-recorded video. He was 69 at the time.
While the Hall of Fame is growing, and the Hall will introduce a commemorative coin at next year’s Final Four that should help the nonprofit organization expand further, there remains a cloud of mystery around the voting and how inductees are actually elected.
Also, some Hall of Famers and those hoping to be inducted have questioned the timing of the inductions — for example, this year’s election of 82-year-old Al Attles, 36 years after he coached his last NBA game — and Fitch, who last coached in the NBA more than 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, current college coaches such as Tom Izzo, Bill Self, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim and John Calipari already have been inducted into the Hall.
John Doleva, the president and CEO of the Naismith Hall of Fame, assures there is no limited space in the Hall and the fact those college coaches were elected did not result in veteran NBA coaches and other contributors being passed over.
The Naismith Hall of Fame voting is made up of several different committees, so the election of Vlade Divac from the International Committee is separate than Fitch or former Celtic Paul Westphal from the North American Committee.
There is also a Women’s Committee, which elected all-time great player Teresa Weatherspoon; the Contributor Direct Election Committee (Attles), Early African American Pioneers Committee (Chuck Cooper, the first African-American drafted by an NBA team, Boston); Veteran’s Committee (Former Celtics player Carl Braun) and the North American and Women’s committees also can elect all-time great teams.
Unlike the election committees of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, where media members openly vote for candidates and lobby for them — in the case of the Football Hall — the basketball voting committee members serve three-year terms and are vowed to secrecy.
In other words, inductees have no idea who elected them, and the Naismith Hall of Fame prefers the private process.
“I’m used to explaining it and it’s different than football and baseball,” Doleva said. “Because football and baseball cover the men’s game professionally, end of story. Naismith invented this game for everyone: men, women, high school college, pro, coaches, players. We really represent the entire game, so we have a broader class.
“And by no means is anyone not elected because a slot goes to someone else. I think we’re a more inclusive organization; this game has a rich history and we want to recognize those who have led that history in this Hall of Fame. It’s a bigger pallet to choose from than baseball or football.”
Two of the 10 inductees were elected posthumously while Fitch is unable to attend. The Veteran’s Committee and Early African American Pioneers Committees have elected several members posthumously in the past, but what has bothered some members and prospective members are the choices of the North American Committee, which elected Fitch.
Fitch was represented by his son-in-law Ron Coville at the introductory press conference.
“Looking backwards, this is tough,” Doleva said of inductees being unable to speak or fully engage in the award because of age or health reasons. “The cream rises to the top and I said that today to Chuck Cooper’s son and Carl Braun’s daughter. I said, ‘there’s a reason why your dads were elected in this year.’ While I feel bad that Coach Fitch can’t be here, I think the important factor is he’ll be recognized and in this Hall he’ll live forever.”
So the Naismith Hall of Fame has no intention of changing its process. Instead, it is focusing on growth and preparation for a 2020 class that could be the most star-studded in the Hall’s history with Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett potentially joined by Gregg Popovich, who isn’t in the Hall because he has refused consideration. He apparently wanted to wait until Duncan, one of his all-time favorite players with the Spurs, was eligible for induction.
So Springfield will be popping for the next several Septembers while the Naismith Hall continues to expand as basketball’s popularity continues to soar.