SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Sometimes there needs to be a governor on the evolution of the game, if only a symbolic one.
Maybe that’s part of what John Stockton’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was over the weekend.
Sports museums are mostly time capsules, and even with a center court on which to shoot 3-pointers and interactive gizmos to call play-by-play or sky for rebounds, the appeal of the Hoops Hall is Doc Naismith’s peach basket and the old stuff under glass.
The stiff, Frisbee-sized leather kneepads worn by the Original Celtics. Bob Cousy’s buckle shorts. Elgin Baylor’s moth-eaten college jersey. An old pair of Chuck Taylors.
All of which you could imagine Stockton being completely natural in, in his era or theirs.
Natural, but not stuck in. There was no change in necessity or nuance that escaped Stockton over the course of his 19-year National Basketball Association career. Adaptations were made as the scouting report demanded. Yes, he stuck with the short shorts, but it wasn’t as if he was pining for train travel, OK?
But the fact that the game of Spokane’s favorite dish was grounded in the workmanship and fundamentals that seemed quaintly old school was a comfort for those of us who occasionally tire of every trip down the floor always being played above the rim. Sometimes, you just need something to hold on to.
Each inductee in the Hall’s Class of 2009 gave us that. Jerry Sloan’s inclusion reaffirmed that toughness and honesty matter. David Robinson’s mission is, and always has been, duty. Vivian Stringer’s presence reminded us that opportunities must be there for all – and mentors, as well.
And Michael Jordan? Well, we can take comfort that Michael will always be Michael.
A whole lot of amazing and a little bit of maddening.
Blessedly, Jordan resisted the temptation this weekend to refer to Stockton, et al., as “my supporting cast.” At least not in public.
“Contrary to what you guys believe,” he lectured the media, “it’s not just me going into the Hall of Fame. It’s a group of us. I’m proud to be a part of it with them and believe me, I’m going to remember them as much as they remember me.”
Jordan is more than capable of graciousness, though it takes some effort – something always ascribed to his hyper competitiveness. He is also capable of gracelessness, as when his induction speech veered into examples of how he was motivated by slights both real and perceived, and specifically by whom: former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, the kid who made the high school varsity when Jordan did not, Isiah Thomas and his conspirators in the infamous All-Star Game freeze-out and even Bryon Russell, over whom Jordan launched his final dagger.
At a black tie event, he was pointing and saying, “I’m going to dunk on you, I’m going to dunk on you, and you, and you.”
He took delight in telling the story of scoring the last 20 points in a comeback Bulls win, having revered assistant coach Tex Winger tell him that there’s no ‘I’ in “team,” and then responding, “There’s an ‘I’ in ‘win.’ ”
It is something you can’t imagine Bill Russell ever saying – and he, not Jordan, is the game’s ultimate winner.
But that’s part of the game’s evolution, too. It’s an in-your-face culture now.
And in his better moments, Jordan allowed that such an evolution is bound to leave questions unanswered – beginning with his acclaim as basketball’s greatest player.
“I never played against Jerry West, I never played against Elgin Baylor, I never played against Wilt Chamberlain,” he said. “To say I’m better than those people is not for me to decide. I would never give myself that sort of accolade, because I never competed against everybody in this Hall of Fame.
“So it’s too much for me to ask and too much for me to accept.”
As is the notion that there is – or must be – another Michael Jordan.
“When I came out, you saw some resemblance of Dr. J,” he said. “How can you not see a resemblance of myself in Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? But don’t be in a rush to find another Michael Jordan – there’s not going to be another Michael Jordan. Times are different, the games are different, the desire to have that type of player is different.
“Those guys have strong potential to be better than Michael Jordan down the road. They’re going to create their own names, their own personas. Just give it time.”
Nor, we’re persuaded, will there be another John Stockton. Not unless evolution can be put in reverse.
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