LOVERRO: Nobody should enter Basketball Hall of Fame before Lefty Driesell

 

Thom Loverro

The Washington Times

April 5th, 2016

When former NFL tight end Mike Ditka was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he stood on the stage at Canton and said, “I don’t know how I got in here before John Mackey,” recognizing the travesty of a worthy candidate being passed over.

Nearly every college basketball coach who has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame could say the same thing about Lefty Driesell.
Unfortunately, they can still make that claim.

The new class elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame was released on Monday, and there were many noteworthy and deserving names on that list — great players in Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal; a unique player in Yao Ming; a WNBA pioneer and one of the all-time greats in the women’s game in Sheryl Swoopes; Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who has led his teams to a national championship and seven Final Four trips; and Jerry Reinsdorf, who I guess is being inducted for signing Michael Jordan’s and Scotty Pippen’s checks.
The list of people inducted posthumously — you know, the ones that the gatekeepers didn’t deem worthy enough of recognition when they were alive — is perhaps more interesting than the inductees who are alive.

ABA great Zelmo Beatty was a good player, but not particularly one of the greats, having earned three ABA all-star and two NBA all-star selections — but maybe he should be in the Hall of Fame for his name alone. Why Beatty is a Hall of Famer and Bobby Dandridge isn’t remains one of the mysteries of Springfield, though not its greatest. Also elected was the late referee, Darel Garretson, a historic and influential figure among NBA officials who pleaded guilty to fraud in an airline ticket scheme.

Cumberland Posey is a particularly interesting electee. He is best known for his place in Negro League baseball history as the founder of the historic Homestead Grays, who would eventually play many of their home games at Griffith Stadium in Washington. He was a great basketball player as well, generally acknowledged as the best African-American player of his time in the early 20th century. He also founded and operated the Loendi Big Five — one of the most dominant African-American teams in the 1920s and one that won four consecutive Colored Basketball World Championship titles.

John McClendon may be the most deserving member in the entire group, and it is a shame that the Hall didn’t recognize that before he died in 1999. He had been recognized as one of the most influential coaches in the history of the game while coaching and winning national championships at historic black colleges from 1941 through 1959 like the North Carolina College for Negroes, Hampton Institute and Tennessee State A&I He would also coach the Cleveland Pipers for George Steinbrenner in the American Basketball League in the early 1960s and spend one season with the Denver Rockets in 1969.

John Thompson Jr., the legendary Georgetown coach and himself a Hall of Famer, has long championed McClendon as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.

Thompson has also championed Driesell — his former rival at Maryland. He is upset that Driesell, at the age of 84, was bypassed one more time by the group that determines who is worthy of Hall of Fame status.

“I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Thompson said in a radio interview. “The influence he had on my life and everybody in that region, it’s unbelievable. I tell people that he transformed the whole attitude in the Washington metropolitan area because high school sports dominated everything then. Dominated. And, he came in with his charisma, but the man’s won ball games. It’s not just his personality.

“I don’t understand why he didn’t get in,” Thompson said. “That’s very difficult for me to understand.”

Difficult, yes. Driesell never won a national championship, but it was a little more challenging to get the opportunity to do so when he coached. He put together perhaps the greatest team never to play for a national championship n 1973-74 when Maryand — Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas among his players — lost to David Thompson and N.C. State, 103-100, in overtime in what is often considered the greatest game in college basketball history. That Maryland team was then shut out of the NCAA tournament because in those days, if a team didn’t win its conference title like N.C. State did, it didn’t go to the tournament.

The following year, the tournament included at-large bids because that Maryland team — potentially a national championship team — didn’t get a chance to compete for one.

Driesell had coached 15 years before they made that decision — first at Davidson, where he won five Southern Conference regular-season championships and three tournament titles, compiling a record of 241-176. When he came to Maryland, he predicted they would become the “UCLA of the East,” and in terms of profile and presence, accomplished that goal, going 507-348 from 1969 to 1986. He did leave Maryland in turmoil, following the death of Len Bias and questions about the program, but went to James Madison and did what he does. From 1988 to 1997, his James Madison teams went 270-159, and then finally, at Georgia State from 1997 to 2003, he compiled a 162-103 record.

At every stop where Driesell coached, he won, and took every program to the NCAA tournament. He retired with 786 career victories, which ranks eighth on the all-time list.
It is a Hall of Fame career. That shouldn’t be open to debate.

“I was surprised and disappointed to learn that I was not elected to the Naismaith Hall of Fame,” Driesell said in a statement following the Hall of Fame announcement. “Basketball was my life for more than 50 years. I gave it everything I had. I could recount the wins and awards, but that information is available for all to see. I think my record speaks for itself.”
Some people, though, are apparently deaf.

Maybe Izzo, with his 524 wins over 21 seasons in one place at Michigan State, might make that clear when he is on the stage in September to be inducted.
Perhaps he says, “I don’t know how I got in here before Lefty Driesell.”

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