Visiting the Hall of Fame

Thanks to a nearby wedding and some down time, I got the chance, this weekend, to visit the Basketball hall of fame. It was an interesting experience, including a basketball gym at the end where you can shoot at all the different styles of hoops over the century, including a peach basket, for as long as you want. Ultimately, though, I think what I found is that the HoF mirrored, in important ways, many of the strange things about the modern game.

As, essentially, a historian, it may seems surprising that I thought there was way too much history. There should definitely BE history.  It's one of the only places you could possibly be expected to look for relics of the game's long tradition, and in this respect the place hardly disappoints. It's just that, at times, the museum felt like it was all relic. It seemed to willfully refuse me the things I was looking for, to relive the great moments, to treat the more proximate present as more real, more important, to patrons than the grand old days of five 5'6" guys scoring 30 points a game.

I didn't think that was great.

Here's my thesis, basically. Basketball and baseball hold very different places in public memory and the museums should serve public memory. Baseball's older, but not to a degree that anyone alive today should care about-if baseball predates the Civil War, basketball still arrived before the Spanish-American War began. But that's not really what matters. Baseball and tradition go hand in hand. Basketball doesn't, and probably shouldn't.

It's a question of what museums should do, or rather, whether a museum and a hall of fame are the same thing. Where else could you find the scraps of old jerseys, James Naismith's swaddling blanket, commemorative basketballs given to coaches dead 70 years? But should that be a room or should that be the museum? Because it's the museum. It feels wrong.

There are a great many reasons why this view is flawed, but what feels like it's true about basketball is that its heroes float, unmoored, in a very general past, until the 1980s. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Elgin Baylor, Earl the Pearl, Clyde Frazier. It feels like maybe George Mikan played earlier, and Jerry West played later (than Mikan), but generally speaking there's a big basketball box called the past and everybody before Bird and Magic fits in it somewhere.

Maybe it's a visual problem. While it's possible to imagine Babe Ruth hitting some homers off Pedro Martinez-fairly or unfairly, the game at least looks the same-you really can't look at old NBA footage and think that George Mikan could score much on Hakeem.  But, more likely, it's just the difference in regalia. Presidents do not throw out the first tip of the basketball season.  When we're talking about 1919 or so in baseball, we're talking about the Black Sox Scandal, Shoeless Joe, Field of Dreams. In basketball, we're talking about the invention of the bounce pass.

I'm not arguing that it's a good thing that basketball is curiously a sport without much connection its history, and I'm not arguing that this is a universal way to feel.  I'm only saying that my perception is, many of us feel like there is a cultural blank filled with figures, some black and white, some in ‘70s funk, then there is Magic and Larry and basketball. And that this is a feeling, perhaps obviously but still to its detriment, that the NBA Hall of Fame absolutely doesn't share.

I came to see moments. Wilt's 100, Kobe's 81. How good was Charles Barkley? How good was Karl Malone? But it's actually possible-I achieved it myself-to go through the entire museum without seeing Karl Malone's face.  There are some pictures of Lew Alcindor, in the section on the NCAA. I didn't see any of Kareem.

Maybe it's precisely because I was looking for it that the HoF didn't serve it up. Maybe they know we come in wanting to see one room of black and white photos and the rest about Michael Jordan, and they want us to change our minds. Maybe they deliberately refuse to give us HD videos because they don't want us to keep walking down the path of short memories and short term validations.

Maybe it's because the number of greats who have retired since basketball really burst on the American scene really isn't all that many, yet. Dirk, Duncan, Kobe and Garnett are still playing. Shaq hasn't been retired long enough to be eligible. The latest hall of fame class included Gary Payton. Knowwhatimean?

But then again, look at the other guys who went in with the Glove: Rick Pitino who, to the best of my knowledge, is still a coach;  Guy Lewis, who began his coaching career in the 50s; Bernard King, who retired in 1993, well after his greatness had faded;  Russ Granik, recent NBA COO; Richard Guerin, who was drafted in 1956; Oscar Schmidt, Roger Brown and Dr E.B. Henderson.

As Gina said to Debra in the instant classic, Empire Records, "Well, well, well, Sinead o'Rebellion. Shock me, shock, shock me with that deviant behavior".

I want to be careful here, because part of the reason the museum is a little-shall we say dull-is because of its inclusiveness. The WNBA is omnipresent, as is women's college hoops. The number of committees which elect new members to the hall include an ABA Committee, an Early African-American Pioneers of the Game Committee, an International Committee, a Veterans Committee, and a Contributor Committee. It may not all be what you came there for, but if every museum had that level of inclusiveness, we'd all feel very differently about history.

It's just that the great museums are living history. And it certainly felt like this museum was as dead as they come. I saw about 10 times as many old jerseys as I saw moments I remembered, cherished or had heard about. I saw more displays honoring dynasties, by a fair margin, than discussion about the great teams, what made them great, some of their achievements. I have no idea on this, but I just started assuming that part of the problem is that the HoF wasn't able to get the rights to anything. Because they didn't have anything. There are only two floors of exhibits in the NBA Hall of Fame. The first is the ring of honor, which has everyone's name and a description of what they did. The second has the history of the game, from Naismith to some Heat gear, and you can walk through that in 30 minutes and still get it all. It's not great.

The second to last stop on the museum tour is by far the best. It's a gym, with normal hoops and basketball racks, except that one of the walls has hoops through the centuries. Only the peach basket hoop and the one next to it seem remotely different from modern hoops, but that doesn't mean that it isn't fun to swish it in the peach basket or, even better, to get one that rattles around in there so slowly it can take 45 seconds to work its way out.

But the last stop, the gift shop, was just as bad as the museum in the other direction. I came, of course, looking for Mavericks' gear, but despite the fact that these were your 2011 NBA champions, all you can get is a Mavs banner, Mavs pencils, and a Mavs mug.

The jerseys are Heat, Knicks, Lakers, Nets, Celtics, Thunder etc. The sweatbands and t-shirts are Heat, Knicks, Lakers, Nets, Celtics, Thunder etc. The bobbleheads, something I'd love to hear an explanation of, were literally only Lin, Westbrook and Paul, and a lot more Lin and Westbrook than anything else.

And here's really where my opinion changed about the whole experience. Because you could understand and sympathize with a museum who felt that they were the sole purveyors of the history of the game, and therefore had to have it all, whatever would be most pleasing. But in the store, you had the other prejudice of NBA ball: the huge bias towards young and exciting players, the huge bias towards mass market teams. Of course you did. The store's business is to make money.

I'm not going to blame a store for trying to make money, but it's evidence that the Hall of Fame actually does know EXACTLY what the audience came to see, and CHOSE not to give it to them.  If you're a basketball hero, you get your picture and a bio in a big room. That's it.  The last five years exist, so long as you're a young and exciting team, not an old and boring one like the Mavs or Spurs. The ten years before that don't exist, besides Kobe and Shaq.

But then there's Jordan, and then there's Magic and Larry, and then there's Wilt dueling Russell, and the Logo and all this past, like a great voice shouting at us to remember what's popular, forget everything else, no matter the decade. It's a history without a middle.

And if you're doing that, you'd better not also be a museum so full of old jerseys  that when archaeologists find it, a thousand years from now, they'll be able to stop looking for early 20th century fabrics because they'll have learned everything they need to know.

Unfortunately, my lasting memories of the Hall of Fame will be what wasn't there. The only mention I found anywhere of those great Kings teams in the nineties was in the section on the media, in which there was a video displaying some clips from Game 1 against the Lakers as a way of showing how complex the decisions are about what camera to switch to. The videos were half-hearted clips of names, big and little, and usually focused on things like passion and tenacity, rather than achievement and result, like they were trying to get me to attend Hall of Fame college.

There wasn't even a montage film of Jordan dunks. As I told my girlfriend, while we were there, it's likely that literally watching a bunch of youtube clips would have been more emotional, more compelling than what they have going on there.

If you go the NBA Hall of Fame, my advice is this: Do it like we did it, which is, don't make a special trip, but go if you're in the area. Go and learn something, although it's more history book than inspired teacher. Take it in. Look at the artifacts. Most of all, shoot hoops on the peach basket.

Just don't expect to relive the past you remember, unless you happen to be 120 years old.

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