Immortality Delayed Is Still Immortality

Del Harris tried not to think about enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He told his avid supporters, including the Hall of Famer John Calipari, not to worry about his fate. It did little good.

Harris, 85, already had many awards and honors from his coaching career: enshrinement in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, lifetime achievement awards from Naismith and from the National Basketball Coaches Association, screen time in the original “Space Jam.” But he admits that wasn’t quite enough.

“I don’t want to diminish any of the other awards and things, but I think everybody understands if you’re a baseball guy, it’s Cooperstown,” he said. “If you’re a football guy, it’s Canton. And in basketball, it’s the birthplace of the game.”

On Saturday, Harris will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., the last of the summer’s salutes to sports heroes past after the Pro Football Hall of Fame held its induction in August and the Baseball Hall of Fame held its in July.

Harris’s long wait — he was last a head coach in 1999 — isn’t an outlier. Nearly every year’s inductions in the American sports Halls of Fame feature honorees who have been asked to wait decades to receive their officially sanctioned immortality. A mixture of hope, logic and good old-fashioned denial is required. No matter how many times they hear “better luck next year,” the long-skipped want the honor.

Del Harris coached the Los Angeles Lakers to 50 or more wins in three straight seasons, the last two of which came with Shaquille O’Neal.Credit…Mike Nelson/AFP, via Getty Images
Harris was honored for his Hall of Fame induction at a Final Four game in April. He had not been a head coach in the N.B.A. since the 1998-99 season.Credit…Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Tony Boselli, 50, had not played in the N.F.L. since 2001 and had been a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist six times before he was inducted this summer. Boselli, who was a superstar left tackle for seven seasons, had talked with his wife, Angi, about the possibility of never getting in. “I’ll be fine; I’ll be OK,” he told her. “I have a great life. I have an amazing family. I’ve been blessed by God to be able to do what I love to do. I have great friends.”

It was the best attitude to take, “especially being a finalist that many times and being told that I didn’t make it,” Boselli added.

For Drew Pearson, a star receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, the “logjam” of qualified candidates gives the Pro Football Hall of Fame its prestige and meaning. Pearson was finally inducted in 2021 after having retired in 1983. As the Hall of Fame eluded his grasp, Pearson sought clarity. The process for induction, he said, has biases and politics, but it’s the best option available.

“There are guys that say, ‘I don’t like the Cowboys so I’m not voting for Drew Pearson’ and that type of thing,” he said, lamenting how there is nothing a former player can do in that situation to help his case. “You can’t go out there and run any more routes. You can’t catch any more balls or Hail Marys. It is what it is, and you hope that it’s good enough.”

That doesn’t mean the process doesn’t rankle. Jim Kaat, a star pitcher for the Minnesota Twins who retired in 1983 but was not enshrined in Cooperstown until this summer, knew the writers wouldn’t vote him in. That was for the Seaver-Koufax class of pitchers. And the Hall of Fame’s veterans committees over the years had routinely been populated by people who had never seen him play, he said, which was frustrating.

Injuries limited Tony Boselli to seven seasons in the N.F.L., but the left tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars was a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler.Credit…Rick Wilson/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press
Tony Boselli, third from left, said he felt an immediate connection to the Pro Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. Three members of the class did not live to see their induction.Credit…Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

This year, Kaat liked his chances. Voters on the Hall’s Golden Days Era Committee had played against him, played with him or were active when he pitched from 1959 to 1983. They knew he was durable and reliable and that his numbers dipped because he moved to the bullpen. He was named on 12 of the committee’s 16 ballots — exactly the number needed for election.

For Kaat, Pearson, Boselli and others, the sense of relief when their sport’s Hall of Fame does come calling can be palpable.

After Pearson was passed over one last time in 2020, he broke down. It was filmed by a Dallas news crew, and he said his reaction was not the exception. The rejection is personal. You just never see it.

“It showed the committee what it means to us players, so don’t mess around, OK?” he said. “Don’t mess around with us, don’t have the biases, don’t have the politics.”

That pain is still the reality of Marques Johnson, a five-time N.B.A. All-Star in the 1970s and 80s, and a star at U.C.L.A. in the late 1970s. He has been a finalist for basketball’s Hall of Fame three times, including 2022. He considered removing his name from consideration until his sons and friends dissuaded him.

Induction would put a “cap on a great career, a great life, he said, but “it’s the not the be-all, end-all for me. There are more important things.”

Encouragement from Hall of Famers such as Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Bill Walton, he said, reinforced that he had been an elite player. But that praise doesn’t protect a psychic wound.

Marques Johnson had his jersey number retired by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019. He is still hoping to be elected to basketball’s Hall of Fame.Credit…Morry Gash/Associated Press

“In the recovery process, we try to avoid the deliberate manufacturing of misery,” Johnson, who is 20 years sober, added via text message. “That day, waiting to hear whether I ‘made the cut,’ is one that I can easily do without. It dredges all types of memories, good and bad — my exceptional exploits and my shortcomings as a player and human being, on both counts.”

Time, though, can exact a toll. When Johnson’s mother Baasha, whom he referred to as Madea, was hospitalized with a stroke in October, he urged her like “a Baptist preacher” to hang on — Madea had to make that trip to Springfield. She died Jan. 5. Kaat’s wife of 20 years, MaryAnn, died in 2008. His daughter, Jill, died in 2021.

Of the seven players elected into Cooperstown this year, only three lived to see their induction.

Time, though, can also bestow gifts. Kaat, who has remarried, shared the day with his grandchildren and was inducted with longtime teammate and friend, Tony Oliva. Pearson, 71, has seen an uptick in endorsements and business opportunities. Boselli developed a kinship with his classmates.

“You get to know their families — their wives, their kids — who they are as men,” he said. “You go from maybe casually knowing some of these guys — you compete against them, maybe see them around — to really being tied together forever in football history as the Class of 2022.”

Bob Dandridge, upper left, was part of fearsome Milwaukee Bucks team that also included, clockwise, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Greg Smith, Oscar Robertson, Coach Larry Costello and Jon McClocklin.Credit…Associated Press
Dandridge, who retired after the 1981-82 season, was presented at his Hall of Fame induction in 2021 by Robertson. Robertson was inducted in 1980.Credit…Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For Bob Dandridge, who was elected into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 2021, the 39-year wait after his N.B.A. career ended resulted in his children being old enough to realize the occasion’s importance. Even his two basketball-obsessed grandsons, Thaddeus, 5, and Zachary, 7, were excited to attend. They recognized the legends of more recent vintage such as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Family members assembled “without any malice, just love.”

“Ten years ago,” Dandridge said, “I wouldn’t have had this type of quality in my life. The wait has been awesome for me.”

Weeks before his induction, Harris, recovering from a back operation, could not yet reflect on how the Hall of Fame has changed his life. But he knew the role basketball had played.

“I had graduated from college to be a preacher,” Harris said. “My Greek professor called me two weeks before school was supposed to start at seminary. He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about you. I really think you should work a year before you go to graduate school; there are no scholarships for that. If you agree, I already have a job for you.’”

Harris coached middle school basketball at King Springs School in Tennessee, a short drive from Milligan College, his alma mater. That was in 1959. Coaching in the N.B.A. finals, writing six books and teaching in clinics worldwide followed. He’s still working in basketball, now as vice president of the G-League’s Texas Legends.

It all started with those boys and girls decades ago. “As I saw their lives change,” Harris said, “mine changed.”

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