There were other inductees who drew more laughs and told more memorable anecdotes than Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond did in their Basketball Hall of Fame induction speeches Friday night. Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson entertained the crowd with a talk that was a kind of profane sermon, his voice rising like a thunderclap, then falling to a whisper. He told of listening to a radio broadcast of a then-little known Larry Bird seemingly scoring at will for Indiana State and thinking “Damn, this brother can play,” before finding out the next day that Bird wasn’t a brother at all.
Ex-Maryland coach Gary Williams, who led the Terrapins to their only national championship in 2002, remembered his first job as a college assistant, at Lafayette in 1971, when he had to serve as head coach the men’s soccer team as well. “People always ask me how I did,” Williams said. “Let’s just say the soccer hall of fame hasn’t called.”
Bob “Slick” Leonard, a college star in the ’50s at Indiana and winner of three ABA titles as the Pacers’ coach, recounted how he hit the game-winning free throw in the 1953 NCAA championship game, making the second shot after “going to choke city like you wouldn’t believe” on the first. Told by reporters after the game that his coach said he had ice water in his veins, Leonard replied, “If that was water, it was warm when it was running down my leg.”
Mourning and Richmond weren’t preachers or comedians when they went to the microphone on Friday night. They were the men they have always been -- businesslike and understated in Richmond’s case, intense and intelligent in Mourning’s. Those approaches always made them particularly respected by both teammates and opponents during their careers, and it was reassuring to see they haven’t changed at all.
Richmond, nicknamed "Rock" by his old teammate Rod Higgins, was exactly that during his 14 NBA seasons, nine of them with the Warriors and Kings. He was solid and dependable, with a scoring average between 22.0 and 25.9 points for each of those first nine seasons. But he was a barrel-chested shooting guard in the golden age of shooting guards, overshadowed by flashier players at the position like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller among others and tucked away in small market Sacramento, where the Kings could only provide him the playoff stage once.
There wasn’t much in the way of postseason appearances, let alone success, for Richmond, whose 23 career playoff games are the same number that Tim Duncan played this year. He won his only championship as a bit player for the Lakers in 2002, the final year before retirement, yet he sounded like a man more than satisfied with his career. He fondly remembered the cocky Tim Hardaway joining him and Chris Mullin with the Warriors in 1989, to form a high-scoring trio with a memorable nickname.
“Run TMC was born,” Richmond said, “and man, did we have some fun and some success.” The losing seasons in Sacramento were, in his estimation, "a great seven-year run with the Kings in a place where I played some of my best basketball, and the Kings fans are simply the best."
Richmond was a revered figure in Sacramento despite the losing, maybe even because of it. Kings fans admired him for sticking it out throughout his prime, and his peers respected him for never letting the losing affect his effort. Jordan famously called him the toughest two-guard he had to face. Everywhere Richmond turned, he found respect.
Maybe the message to be taken from the careers of players like Richmond and Mourning, who also won only one title, with the Heat in 2006, is that a valuable, satisfying, Hall of Fame career can be had without a multitude of championship rings. Every player wants to win, of course, and they should. But, we have seen so many instances in recent years of players working the angles, strategizing about ways to form super teams in order to line up the best chance at a championship. It’s worth remembering that in the end, NBA titles aren’t the only measure of greatness, and they aren’t the only places for players to find gratification.
Mourning, too, won his championship after his best years were behind him, as a big man off the bench with the Heat. Though he thanked his coach from that team, Pat Riley, for being one of the greatest influences in his life, that title wasn’t the accomplishment that seemed to move Mourning the most. His recovery and return to the league after a serious kidney disease that required a transplant ranked higher than that championship.
It doesn’t always take a tons of title to be held in high esteem by your peers -- to carve out a place in history. Mourning will be remembered less for his statistics or his jewelry than for his passion, for that glowering intensity that made it so satisfying for opponents on those rare occasions they got the best of him. When Vince Carter was a rookie terrorizing the NBA with his dunks in 2000, he told me his goal was to posterize every center in the league before the end of the season. Asked which big man he expected to be the toughest to add to his collection, Carter said, “Mourning. You just look in his eyes and you know, this man is no joke. You have to respect him.”
The danger of playing the simplistic game of “How-many-rings-does-he-have?” in evaluating great players is that you can miss players like Mourning and Richmond. Nights like Friday in Springfield, Mass., are reminders that a great career is made up of so much more than hardware. Mourning was introduced on Friday with a video tribute that included the infamous Heat-Knicks fight featuring Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy comically trying to restrain him.
"I tell you,” Mourning said when he began his speech, “it's good to be remembered for more than just dragging Jeff Van Gundy around on my leg.”
He, like Richmond, will be remembered for far more than any one moment, or any one championship. They will be remembered for the reputations they built, which last as long as any gold ring.
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