Daily Press – David Fairbank – April 8, 2014
Thee Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced another induction class Monday, an occasion for both pride and puzzlement in our little corner of the world.
Alonzo Mourning will be enshrined, and rightfully so. The Chesapeake native was a shot-blocking and defensive marvel who played 15 seasons in the NBA, won a title with the Miami Heat and was a multi-time all-star.
Mourning was as fierce a competitor as you’ll find, a player who even as a young man blocked shots and rebounded as if it were a personal affront when others ventured into his territory.
The Hall class also marks another year without officially recognizing one of the giant figures in college basketball history: Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell.
Driesell’s credentials are without question. A Norfolk native and Virginia Beach resident, his teams won 786 games in 41 seasons. He is the only Division I men’s coach in history to win at least 100 games for four schools. He is one of only four coaches in history to take four schools to the NCAA tournament.
He is a big man, a true larger-than-life character who needed only one name: Lefty. The man invented Midnight Madness, for heaven’s sake — the custom of starting at 12:01 a.m. back when everybody began preseason practice on Oct. 15, and turning it into an event. That alone ought to get him at least a plaque in Springfield, Mass.
Several years ago, Terry Holland, who played for Lefty at Davidson and later became a coaching rival at Virginia, responded that of course his former coach belonged in the Hall of Fame.
“There are many coaches with lesser credentials who are in the Hall,” Holland wrote in an email. “But I am not sure there are ANY with his credentials who are not in the Hall.”
Counting this year’s class, there are 94 coaches enshrined in Springfield — professional, college, men’s, women’s, international, high school. Driesell, the man with the eighth-most wins in Division I men’s history, is not one of them.
Lefty made basketball matter at places where that wasn’t always the case. Davidson hadn’t had a winning season since 1949 when he arrived in 1960. When he came to Maryland in 1969, the Terps had two winning seasons since ’61. He didn’t make Maryland “The UCLA of the East” as he promised, but he made the program relevant.
James Madison floundered after Lou Campanelli’s departure. Lefty’s arrival immediately raised the bar not only at JMU, but for the entire Colonial Athletic Association. Georgia State had three winning seasons before Lefty went there in 1997.
The fact that Gary Williams is also a member of this year’s Naismith class — deservedly so — highlights Lefty’s omission. Lefty made Maryland a hot ticket, and Williams dug the program out of the mess left by Bob Wade, winning a national title in 2002.
“I would guess that any detractors might point to the fact that he never won the NCAA tournament or made it to the Final Four,” Holland continued in his email. “However, many of his best teams were snookered by a very different environment than the one that exists today with 64 teams making the field. Neither of my U.Va. Final Four teams would have even made the NCAA field in the old days before multiple bids.”
Indeed, a glance at the list of college coaches in Springfield suggests that the line of demarcation is a national championship, particularly in recent years. Williams and 2014 Hall classmate Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach, both won titles.
But Lou Carnesecca, the former St. John’s coach, and longtime Temple coach John Chaney never won titles. Both are in the Hall. Carnesecca’s teams won 526 games in his career, 260 fewer than Lefty’s. Chaney won 516 games for Temple, 741 total.
Not to dump on Looie or Chaney. Both had immense legacies in basketball meccas.
Richardson, too, was a pioneering figure — the first African-American head coach at a major university in the South. But his teams at Arkansas and Tulsa won 508 games, 278 fewer than Lefty.
Ray Meyer won 724 games in 42 years, all with DePaul. He never won an NCAA title, though the Blue Demons won an NIT championship in the 1940s, when the NIT was a bigger deal than the NCAAs.
The suspicion is that Lefty’s omission from Springfield is a reflection of his departures, notably the aftermath of Len Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose. Driesell resigned at Maryland in 1986 amid allegations of evidence tampering and academic negligence.
Lefty resurfaced two years later and coached for nine years at JMU, but his contract wasn’t renewed following the 1996-97 season in a nasty split. He was hired at Georgia State the following season and took the Panthers to the 2001 NCAA tournament.
But 10 games into the 2002-03 season, he suddenly walked away as the result of a bout with the flu that he couldn’t shake, and he said he didn’t have the energy to continue. A giant career ended quietly and unceremoniously.
Was the Bias aftermath the deal-breaker for an invitation to Springfield? Perhaps. But Hall members Bob Knight, Eddie Sutton, Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino had their own scandals and controversies, either of their own making or on their watches. All four absolutely deserve to be in the Hall.
Is the Bias situation more egregious than any surrounding the other four? Certainly, you can make that case. But last we checked, it was the Naismith Memorial BASKETBALL Hall of Fame. If attaching an asterisk to his name makes Hall voters feel better, have at it.
For a time, Lefty’s omission felt like a curious oversight. As time passes, it appears intentional, almost punitive. The concern is that with each passing year, his accomplishments are further removed and easier to forget among the newest nominees.
Lefty and his wife, Joyce, still rattle around their Virginia Beach home. He’s 82 — he’ll be 83 on Christmas Day. He might not say so, but it gnaws at him that he hasn’t gotten a call from Springfield.
Here’s hoping that if and when the call finally comes, it’s not posthumous.