Phelan reaches doorstep to Hall

Mount legend, Gus Johnson are among 13 nominated

June 11, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Several years ago, after his team had lost at Mount St. Mary's, Marist coach Dave Magarity hopped onto the soapbox.

The Mount had beaten his team handily that night, but Magarity's focus was not on a defeat; it was on the seemingly annual snub of Jim Phelan by basketball's Hall of Fame selection committee.

"It's a travesty," said Magarity. "What does he have to do, win a thousand games?"

The issue has arisen again with the Mount's coach one of 13 candidates named for 1999 induction yesterday. The results will be announced June 21. For enshrinement, a nominee needs 18 of 24 votes from the Honors Committee.

Also to be considered are mercurial forward Gus Johnson of the old Baltimore Bullets and legendary DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wootten, whose 1,185 victories represent a prep school record.

Phelan, 70, hasn't quite won 1,000 games, but he reached 80 percent of that total by guiding his team to an upset championship in the Northeast Conference tournament last March. That earned the Mount its second trip to the NCAA Division I tourney.

Although Phelan himself always downplays the meaning of a Hall of Fame selection, he has legions of backers who believe no one is more deserving.

"It doesn't mean a whole lot to me," he said in a 1997 interview. "It really doesn't matter. It would be a nice honor, but it's not something I miss."

Phelan, who was out of town on a golf outing yesterday, understands that most of the committee leans toward professional players and his credentials as an NCAA Division II coach for most of his 45-year career probably work against him.

"You know him, he's going to go on and live life regardless," said Mount athletic director Harold "Chappy" Menninger. "But I can't think of anyone more deserving. I've only worked with him a short time [five years], but in terms of working with coaches, leaders of men and people, Jim is at the top of the list."

Phelan leads active coaches in victories, has a Division II national title in 1962 and another championship game appearance, and has presided over the Mount's successful transition to Division I.

"It would be real difficult to have all his accomplishments and have people not think he was deserving," said Menninger. "Too many times we wait until people pass by to honor them. Here's an opportunity where Jim is in a position to accept the award."

Johnson, whose acrobatic moves and sheer strength were Bullets highlight films, died in 1987 of a brain tumor. At 6 feet 5 with great leaping ability, he was a natural forward and a forerunner of the Julius Erving style of basketball.

The remaining candidates are primarily members of one-time NBA championship squads -- including five former Boston Celtics.

They include Kevin McHale, who formed a frontcourt with Larry Bird and Robert Parish in the 1980s that produced three Celtics titles, guards Dennis Johnson and Jo Jo White. Former Celtics centers Wayne Embry and John Thompson also were nominated -- Embry, the NBA's first African-American general manager, as a "contributor," and Thompson for his coaching career at Georgetown.

Hall of Fame nominees

The 13 nominations for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Selections will be made June 21:

Maurice Cheeks Jim Phelan

Wayne Embry John Thompson

Dennis Johnson Chet Walker

Gus Johnson Jo Jo White

Bob McAdoo Tex Winter

Kevin McHale Morgan Wootten

Sidney Moncrief

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