They are in many ways the perfect class, three players whose greatness is unquestioned, who have had the phrase "Hall of Famer" attached to their names long before this weekend, when the title becomes official. Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton have been referred to as future Hall of Famers or certain Hall of Famers for years now, for so long that the induction ceremony Friday night in Springfield, Mass., seems like a mere formality.
The two coaches who enter the Hall with them, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer, have impressive credentials of their own, nicely filling out this special group, but for now let us focus on the triumvirate of Jordan, Robinson and Stockton, who form the core of what is perhaps the finest class basketball's Hall has ever welcomed.
One of the reasons they resonate so much with most fans is that they are superstars of recent vintage. They have been gone from the court long enough for us to miss them, but not so long that our memories of them have faded even a little bit. We don't have to dust off some grainy black-and-white footage, or go to the record books for proof of their Hall worthiness, although we would certainly find it there -- Jordan with six championships and a career scoring average of 30.1, the highest of all time; Stockton as the all-time leader in assists; Robinson with a Rookie of the Year and MVP award as well as a scoring title and rebounding title all on his résumé. No, we can still see them in our mind's eye, as clear as day.
We can picture Robinson, The Admiral, in his San Antonio Spurs uniform with his posture ramrod straight, befitting a Navy man. He is lean and muscled at the same time, like a 7-foot-1 track star, and he is as graceful around the basket on offense as he is intimidating on defense. He is the indispensable last line of defense on two Spurs championship teams, and the perfect role model off the court, intelligent and principled and a complete stranger to scandal.
And here is Stockton the point guard, the quintessential playmaker and floor leader. He is racing up the court with the ball, in those throwback short shorts that he stubbornly continued to wear even after the fashion went to longer, baggier trunks. Stockton finds his partner Karl Malone and runs the pick-and-roll that made them both famous, or maybe he makes a perfect pass to another teammate for a layup. Whatever his choice, we know it will almost invariably be the right one, and we know he will execute it with flawless fundamentals and an admirable lack of frills. The man's career is a 19-year instructional video.
Finally, there is the unforgettable Jordan. We don't even need to call on our memory banks to see him -- we can just pop one of his countless highlight reels in the DVD player, or see his Air Jordan logo on our shoes and shorts and shirts, or watch television for a few minutes and wait for one of his commercials to inevitably come along. But the best footage of Jordan is from real competition. Forget the throwaway years at the end with the Washington Wizards and focus on his glory days in Chicago with the Bulls, his tongue hanging out as he soared to the hoop and dunked on some poor big man, or switched the ball from his right hand to his left while in midair to make a spectacular layup. There is the shot that broke Cleveland's heart in the playoffs, the last-second jumper in Utah that earned him his final championship, the 55 points he rang up against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden just days after his return from two years of playing baseball. There are too many memories of Jordan to count, too many for the Hall to hold.
But it isn't just their accomplishments that make this Jordan-Robinson-Stockton trio special. They also have a certain style in common, an elegance, that sets them apart from so many other athletes. This isn't to say that they were always angels. Stockton was a tough, prickly sort who didn't hesitate to set a mean (some would say dirty) pick, and Jordan was both a famously ruthless competitor and a demanding teammate. But all three of them shared the ability to do remarkable things on the court without the need to celebrate themselves or humiliate their opponents.
They didn't taunt, they didn't posture, they didn't beat their chests. They were the kind of players who let their performances speak for themselves, and you get the feeling they would be the same way today, in an era when such humility is increasingly rare. Can you imagine Stockton tweeting his every thought to the masses? Or Robinson chasing starlets and turning up on gossip Web sites? Or Jordan putting himself front and center in some cheesy reality show?
They would have been too mature for any of that, too classy, too cool. So if it seems as if the Hall of Fame isn't just inducting the usual group of great players this year, if it seems that we are witnessing the welcoming of royalty into the Hall, it's probably because Jordan, Robinson and Stockton have always had a regal air about them. Their thrones await them in Springfield, but as we all know, they have always been kings.