SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The emotions that filled Symphony Hall were as in-your-face as Gary Payton, as persistent as Jerry Tarkanian, as touching as the words of Elvin Hayes, as dignified as the memory of Roger Brown and with as much flair for the dramatic as Oscar Schmidt.
By the time the 12 new members of the Hall of Fame gathered on stage Sunday afternoon for the traditional group shot to conclude the enshrinement festivities, something was clearly different. Every year is unique, of course — Reggie Miller tugging at hearts, the sideshow that is Dennis Rodman, the sparkle of the Dream Team reuniting for a group induction. Not like this, though.
This meant something unlike any other time in recent years.
Tarkanian is fighting serious health issues. His family said they specifically noticed an improvement after the coach, best known for his work at UNLV, got word in the spring he would be inducted. As the ceremony approached, and he fought back after a scare, it seemed to be another boost. Once “Tark” got here, after all the years of refusing to be worn down by the NCAA, after previously coming off the Hall ballot from a lack of support, he got an embrace that was one of the warmest moments of the last several enshrinements.
His wife read a note from Jerry in a taped acceptance speech and the 83-year-old Tarkanian added a few sentences on his own in a weak voice: “I have loved the game of basketball since my earliest memories. Basketball has been good to me. I’ve been able to be comrades with some fine individuals in the coaching profession. Sure we can be firey and competitive, even argumentative, but we all loved the game. That special game of basketball. Deep down, we’ll … understand the other. Thank you for your friendship. Finally, thank you, Hall of Fame, for giving me a special honor. It means so much to me, to our players, fans, coaches and staff. We are part of you. That makes us very happy and very proud.”
The standing ovation started before the house lights were all the way up. He came on stage with a walker, next to his presenters, Bill Walton and Pete Carril. And when Tark turned to face the audience, the cheers got even louder.
Guy V. Lewis is having difficult days, too. The 91-year-old former University of Houston coach was unable to speak, leaving it to Hayes, sitting next to Lewis, to deliver an eloquent taped tribute to his former coach. When Lewis was brought on stage in a wheelchair and moved in front of three of his Cougars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the Big E — the crowd responded with loud applause in tribute.
When North Carolina women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell got her turn, she noted how Pat Summitt was supposed to be one of her presenters, only to have to decline when the former coaching legend of the Tennessee Lady Vols, forced into retirement by early-onset dementia, was unable to make the trip. Hatchell asked the audience to send Summitt needed support with a round of applause that could come through the television. Done.
Brown’s family got to see the former Pacers star inducted posthumously as a deserving salute after he had been banned by the NBA as a college freshman and spent years playing AAU ball before joining the fledgling ABA. This day was a vindication.
Schmidt was here about 4 ½ months after a second surgery to remove a brain tumor. Ever the showman, he stepped to the podium, closed his eyes and stood in silence for about 14 seconds before speaking. Having already described how he was so overwhelmed to get news of his election while driving that he had to pull over, having already called the weekend the highlight of his career, the former Brazilian scoring sensation delivered a speech of humor — an appreciation for his presenter, Larry Bird, and ultimately choking up and getting watery eyes when speaking to his wife in the audience.
Payton walked the red carpet upon arrival with close friends Jason Kidd and Brian Shaw – and John Stockton was one of his presenters — so there needed to be a pickup game for the ages going on somewhere after the ceremony. The acceptance speech that eventually followed was exactly what Payton promised, with a little from his alter-ego “The Glove,” the trash-talking point guard playing with a chip on his shoulder, and the mature older man he wanted to show off to make the ceremony mean something more than enshrinement.
The Glove: “As players, we dream of this moment, but we don’t expect to be standing here. But I really, really liked my chances of being here. It’s amazing. This is really happening for me.”
Mature older man: “Few things meant as much to me as my ability to play this game. I bared my soul on the court. I played hard because I wanted to win every time. And sometimes I didn’t come off so pretty. I said things I know I can’t repeat. Plus, I don’t want the guys in the booth to say I can’t say it. So it’s good. Listen, I really didn’t mean any harm, at least not bodily. I’m sure there are some coaches, teammates, opponents, referees and probably management out there who might feel otherwise, though. It was all for my crazy love for the game and my lack of maturity to be able to express my passion any other way. I don’t regret the way I went about it and I’m a strong man today as a result. But I can’t help but think I could have given more to the game that have so much to me. My career is complete. Gary Payton is evolving. But GP is in the Hall of Fame. Thank you.”