SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Lefty Driesell had the crowd laughing. Dino Radja fought back tears. Blue Devils and Tar Heels brought their rivalry to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Ray Allen made a peace offering to his spurned Celtics teammates.
And they did it with an assist from three of the greatest point guards in NBA history.
The Springfield shrine inducted its 13-member Class of 2018 on Friday night, recognizing the players, coaches and contributors who broke records and barriers in equal measure.
Rick Welts, the NBA’s first openly gay executive, went in along with Charlie Scott, the first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship at North Carolina. Ora Mae Washington was honored for a pre-World War II career in which she won 11 consecutive Women’s Colored Basketball Championships. Tina Thompson was the first-ever draft pick in the WNBA.
Also inducted were New York Liberty coach Katie Smith, the leading scorer in women’s professional basketball history; longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn; and Grant Hill, the first Duke player in the Hall.
“It’s a real honor to go in with all of you guys,” said Steve Nash, who was inducted along with fellow point guards Jason Kidd and Maurice Cheeks.
“I was never even supposed to be here,” said Nash, who was born in South Africa and grew up in Canada and went on to win back-to-back NBA MVP awards. “Play the long game. You don’t have to be the chosen one. If you’re patient, the plateaus will become springboards.”
Allen gave a shoutout to Celtics teammates Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, calling the 2008 NBA championship teammates “future Hall of Famers”; both posted congratulatory messages on social media, a thaw in the relationships that have been icy since he left Boston for Miami to chase another title in 2012.
But Allen spent most of his speech describing a life “repeating those boring old habits” that made him the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history.
“What’s so incredible about it is that I loved it,” he said. “I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world.”
Kidd trudged up the steps into Springfield’s Symphony Hall carrying a baby stroller. Nash carried his son in his arm. Dikembe Mutombo stopped to take a selfie with Julius Erving and Kyrie Irving. Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki made their way up the red carpet. Larry Bird was a late arrival.
Wayne Gretzky showed up in the video introducing Nash, crediting him with spreading the love of basketball across the hockey-loving country.
“From Vancouver to Newfoundland,” the hockey Hall of Famer said, “he gave them the opening and belief that they could play in the NBA.”
Welts was a pioneer of a different sort.
The Golden State Warriors President and COO, who started in the NBA as a Seattle SuperSonics ballboy, read a letter that he wrote to his 10-year-old self, telling the boy he will have his dream job by 24. But risking it to come out as gay in 2011 “will be the most important thing you ever do.”
Radja, a champion in three different European leagues and two-time Olympic silver medalist, said he cried for 10 days when he learned he would be inducted in the Hall and choked up as he began his speech.
“Playing basketball was easier,” he said.
Cheeks also struggled to hold back tears, at one point breaking down until his presenter, Dr. J., stepped forward to console him.
“Charles (Barkley) told me not to cry, but I’m about to talk about my mother right here,” Cheeks said, calling her “My very first coach, Mama Cheeks.”
Driesell’s meandering speech was such a crowd-pleaser that every time he stopped to ask if his time was up, the crowd shouted back: “No!”
Scott followed Driesell and Hill and said if the Duke guys were going to go over their time limit, the Carolina guy can, too.
“Duke and a short speech is an oxymoron,” said Scott, who broke the color barrier in Chapel Hill and brought the Tar Heels to back-to-back Final Fours before winning the 1976 NBA title in Boston. “I am very proud to be standing here as a black man that took a patch that wasn’t easy, but was the right path to take.”
Thorn played eight years in the league, coached in both the NBA and the ABA and has been in basketball for half a century. But he knows it was the selection of Michael Jordan when Thorn was the Chicago Bulls general manager in 1984 that cemented his place in basketball lore.
“Thank you, Michael, for your friendship,” Thorn said. “I know I wouldn’t have a Wikipedia page without you.”