SPRINGFIELD — This understated class didn’t disappoint. There are Naismith Hall of Fame classes that are considered star studded, others where the inductees are finally getting their just respect.
This 2019 class was the latter. It may have lacked the big-name recognition of those past classes, but the night at Symphony Hall was indeed special.
Former WNBA star Teresa Weatherspoon offered an emotional and moving speech. Paul Westphal revealed that he wished he would have thanked the late John Havlicek, who passed away earlier this year, for being a great Celtics rookie mentor 40-plus years ago.
Bill Fitch, in a recorded video, thanked Larry Bird and then told stories about his NBA life. Jack Sikma, with a large contingent from Seattle present in support, lobbied for the return of the NBA to the Emerald City.
Sidney Moncrief jokingly asked former Lakers executive and Hall of Famer Jerry West why he drafted Magic Johnson No. 1 overall over him 40 years ago.
It was a touching night in Springfield, where the youngest inductee was 51-year-old Vlade Divac. It was not a night for the youngsters, as there were no recently retired players in this class.
Next year likely will feature Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan. Springfield will be magnetic, littered with young fans, current players and 40-something former ones.
But this was a night for those who spent their career and basketball lives underappreciated. Sikma’s fadeaway jumper from behind his mop-haired head. Moncrief’s defensive tenaciousness in an era where only scoring dunks received headlines. Westphal’s relentlessness.
Divac’s groundbreaking impact with the Yugoslavian national team, and being one of the first Europeans drafted, introducing a slew of international prospects to the NBA consciousness. Weatherspoon’s enthusiasm and grittiness as she came back to the United States at age 31 to play in the new WNBA, and earned five All-Star appearances at an age where most players are past their primes.
Bobby Jones, the staunch defender who would give Bird major issue, would revolutionize the game and bring glory to a bench role by being the first Sixth Man of the Year award.
This class may not have the pizzazz, especially compared with next year’s potential inductees, but their impact on the game and appreciation for this honor was meaningful.
“My emotions have been flying from one side to the other,” Weatherspoon said in her 16-minute speech. “I am definitely going to be me up here. I don’t have anything rolling. I want to speak from my heart and what I feel. This game has given me a great opportunity to do some wonderful things.”
Weatherspoon talked about being kicked off her high school team and needing her mother to negotiate her return three days later.
Chuck Cooper, the first African American drafted (by the Celtics in 1950), was presented by perhaps the most illustrious group in the hall’s history — Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Dominque Wilkins.
The Veteran’s Committee selected former Knicks player Carl Braun, who also won a title with the Celtics in 1962, his final NBA season.
This was a night where you had to search YouTube and Wikipedia for more information on the inductees, because some of them weren’t household names.
Fitch headlined the unheralded theme of this class, leading all five teams he coached to playoff appearances. Known as a franchise reviver, Fitch took downtrodden, losing teams and catapulted them to respectability, including the Celtics.
Boston had won 61 games combined the previous two seasons before Fitch took over in 1979–80. The Celtics won 61 games that season, then 62 and the NBA title the next, beating the Houston Rockets in six games.
“I was hired in a lot of places because nobody wanted the job,” Fitch, 87, said in his recorded speech. “It was like starting all over at a lot of the jobs.
“That team in Boston was very good and I had liked [Robert] Parish from the day he got out of college. . . . I remember Red [Auerbach] saying, ‘Why do you want Parish?’ And I said, ‘When we get him, you’ll know why.’
“And I wanted [Kevin] McHale. I knew McHale from the University of Minnesota. And I felt that those two players, to go along with Bird and [Nate] Archibald in his comeback, we had a chance of winning big time.”
Fitch did not hide his admiration for Bird.
“You get me started on Larry Bird, I remember after his rookie year in talking to Larry [I said], ‘Now you have got a tough job. You’ve got to go home, and when you come back in the fall, I want you to be even better than what you are now,’ ” Fitch said. “When he came back that second year, he was better.”
Said Bird of Fitch in the video profile leading up to Fitch’s induction: “He’s best thing to ever happen to me, I love him very much. The guy is special.”
It was a night of appreciation for those inductees who spent their careers overshadowed. It was heartening for the crowd to watch them get their deserved awards, making for an emotional night.