There's little evidence that very many participants in Friday's Basketball Hall of Fame induction festivities were too concerned with that question. But it's a question worth reflecting upon, both for its own sake and because doing so helps illuminate just why it is basketball's higher authorities chose this year to confer its highest honors on former North Carolina player and assistant coach Larry Brown. To put it bluntly, what are halls of fame for?
Three plausible answers suggest themselves. The first is simply to celebrate remarkable achievements for their own sake, be it Magic Johnson's 5 NBA titles and multiple MVP awards or Larry Brown's record of reaching the post-season each and every year as a head coach, both in the NBA and college. Hall of Fame-scale achievements have the capacity to produce awe -- not only for fans but for those involved in the game directly. Matt Doherty, who made the trip to Springfield and clearly enjoyed the proceedings, put the point this way: "It's neat to be here and see such legends all around you, from Larry Brown to Dean Smith to Pat Riley to Bob Lanier to Bob Cousy. This is what you grow up dreaming about, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird. What a great night, to be in the middle of it." Anyone who loves basketball and felt the buzz in the usually gritty Springfield air Friday night would have to agree: it's not every day that you simply turn your head and see a David Thompson or Bill Walton walking by.
A second purpose of a hall of fame might be construed as not simply celebrating achievement and success, but celebrating the underlying virtues and habits which led to that success. That theme was also evident Friday night. Former players for inductee Kay Yow talked movingly about what a blessing it is to have played for the long time N.C. State women's coach and the positive impact she had on their lives. The Harlem Globetrotters were praised for not only their entertainment value but their spirit of ambassadorial good will. The work ethics and team-first attitudes of inductee Magic Johnson and his presenter Larry Bird were repeatedly invoked. In Larry Brown's case, the 76ers coach's skills as a teacher were highlighted by numerous former players, as well as his own presenter, Dean Smith, who cited the excellent defense and emphasis on unselfishness characteristic of Brown's teams as evidence of a great teacher at work.
A third purpose of a hall of fame is to give, however briefly, a bully pulpit to esteemed people within the sport, a chance for them to have their say while the whole basketball world is watching. Larry Brown seized the opportunity afforded by his induction with both hands, making an impassioned plea for basketball coaches throughout the United States to re-emphasize playing the game "the right way." For Brown, the recent 6th place showing by NBA players in the World Championships in Indianapolis is symptomatic of a deeper problem: Brown thinks that pro basketball has slipped away from the teamwork standards set by teams like the ‘80s Lakers and Celtics, and that the teaching of fundamentals and teamwork is being de-emphasized at the high school level as scholastic coaches lose influence and AAU coaches gain it.
That's an assessment a number of Brown's peers share. Kansas head coach Roy Williams noted Friday that "Larry, myself, Coach Smith, we always talk about playing very unselfishly and playing extremely hard. That's the way the game should be played, and sometimes we're not getting that as much any more. I do think if we go back to that era, we'd be better off. "
Billy Cunningham, a Hall of Fame player and a former teammate of Brown, noted that in Indianapolis "Very gifted athletes, talented basketball players, just weren't able to compete against the other teams around the world because they weren't as strong with their fundamentals and they didn't play very well as a team. That's something that goes back to high school and develops over the career. Hopefully that's something that opens the eyes of coaches throughout the country, that they better start teaching a little bit more and not allow players to rely on their athleticism."
But while Brown's concerns about the growing corruption of what he calls "our game" may be widespread, Brown is doing something more interesting than simply complaining about the "players of today." Brown thinks that these observed problems are not the young players' fault, and that the responsibility for improving the situation lies with coaches, to better communicate the importance of fundamentals, teamwork, respect for the game. "I think we've lost a little bit of what those two guys [Magic and Larry Bird] were about, and I don't think it's our young players' fault," remarked Brown. "I just think a lot of issues have interfered with how the game is played. I'm hopeful with Magic getting in, and Larry introducing him, that maybe people will reflect on just why they were so special. Our game needs to get back to being the best team game."
A simple message. If the fact that Brown is now a Hall of Famer causes more coaches and more young players to heed it, that would more than justify the institution's existence.
Larry Brown became on Friday just the sixth person associated with the University of North Carolina to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame (the others are Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, and former coaches Ben Carnevale, Frank McGuire and Dean Smith. Kansas leads all schools with 14 Hall of Fame representatives, counting both Brown and Smith.) Carolina has more Hall of Famers than any other ACC school, but the fact that only a very small percentage of all the great players and coaches who have passed through Chapel Hill are in the Hall underscores the magnitude of Brown's accomplishment. Brown said Friday that the best of the occasion was getting to share it with family and friends, not least members of the Carolina coaching fraternity, who were uniformly thrilled.
"I'm so excited for Larry," said Dean Smith before Friday's ceremony. "I thought he'd get in last year, the first year he was eligible."
Matt Doherty: "It's just a great tribute to Coach Brown and to Coach Smith, that one of his pupils got in. It's a great tribute to the Carolina family."
Billy Cunningham: "I'm just so proud of what he's been able to achieve over his career, he's just been absolutely marvelous."
Roy Williams: "My first thoughts of Larry are from North Carolina because he was one of my heroes as I was coming up as a high school player and a college student, trying to become a coach. That part was there even before the Kansas thing. He's part of the North Carolina basketball family and what Coach Smith established over the years. It's just an incredible lineage, and I feel very comfortable and very proud to be part of it. And then for me to be fortunate enough to become the basketball coach at Kansas and still see everything that's still there and what Larry left me is extremely important to me."
But whereas coaches like Smith and Williams established themselves in a single location for years and then decades, Brown practically invented the concept of the journeyman basketball coach. For pro basketball players, the "journeyman" label is often a code word for mediocrity. Not in Brown's case.
"Every place he's gone the teams have always improved," noted Cunningham. "He just feels that the foundation he was able to get from Coach Smith in Chapel Hill was the main reason why he has had the success he's had over the years."
Cunningham, a sophomore on the 1963 Tar Heel club which Brown captained, was also present at the very first stop of Brown's coaching odyssey in the ABA. "I had the chance to play for Larry when he coached the Carolina Cougars in 1971, and I could tell at that point that he was going to be a coach, just listening and talking with him, this was something he loved to do at any level, whether it was high school, college. At that point we knew that the commitment was there. We knew he had the knowledge and could relate to players, and would get it done."
In the past Brown has said that he never intended for his career to take the shape it did, that it just turned out that way due to shifting circumstances. Asked Friday how his career might have developed if the ABA had not lured him away from Chapel Hill in 1967, Brown mused, improbably, that "Maybe I would have been like Bill Guthridge and stayed there for thirty years, and no one would have been on my back about [always] leaving."
But whereas Brown once might have felt defensive about his frequent moves, on Friday he openly embraced and celebrated the nine stops on his head coaching career. Before making his acceptance speech, Brown gave each member of his family a cap corresponding to one of his former teams to wear on stage as he spoke, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Viewing Brown's career in perspective, it becomes possible to see the peculiar virtues and accomplishments of the 76ers coach's career as complementary to, not opposed to, Smith's own accomplishments. Whereas Smith brought his coaching philosophy to life by building and sustaining a single program and making it a model for the basketball world, Brown has been a traveling evangelist for playing the right game way, living proof that Smithian principles, suitably adapted, can work not only in the confines of Chapel Hill but even in relatively unlikely locations such as the Los Angeles Sports Arena (former home of the Clippers).
Indeed, on Friday night Smith honored his former player not simply as a protege but, even though Brown himself might be uncomfortable with the idea, as an equal in the coaching profession: Said Smith: "No one loves the game more than Larry Brown, no one enjoys teaching it more, and very few if any have done it any better."
And the best part, for anyone who thrills to see basketball played unselfishly and with heart, is that he's not done yet.
For more of what Brown had to say on Friday, read the Brown Q&A excerpts
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html