Still missing

Phelan's absence from Springfield plainly obvious

On basketball

April 10, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

It has been three days now, and the ground hasn't opened under the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and swallowed up the building. So the selection of Dick Vitale didn't turn out as apocalyptic as one would have thought.

Still, Vitale is in the most prestigious of basketball shrines and Jim Phelan is not. Not even Vitale, in his moment of glory on Monday, could understand that.

But he believes he can explain it. So can one of his new fellow enshrinees, John Thompson, a coach who, like Vitale, thinks Springfield has an obvious void.

"I really wonder what the decisions are in terms of the determining factors," Vitale said Monday in San Antonio, not long after tearing up as he spoke of his latest honor.

"But," he continued, "that's the one beauty - and I spoke about it [Sunday] - at least there is a college hall of fame now in the discussion, which can recognize people like Jimmy."

Phelan, the 49-year coach at Mount St. Mary's, along with Vitale and five other college luminaries had made up the third class of inductees into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo., whose official induction is in November. Even in the middle of the college game's signature event, Final Four weekend, it didn't get the publicity that the ensuing selection to the other hall of fame got, and that likely won't change.

That's exactly why the college version was created, Vitale pointed out - echoing as he did the persistent belief throughout college ball that Springfield tilts too far toward the pros. "You look at the Hall - how much college is in there? It's basically the NBA that's highly recognized. They mostly recognize you for what you did in your NBA career."

Take that with a grain of salt, of course, although it does illustrate, in a positive way, why Vitale was a four-time finalist and finally got in. His passion for college basketball comes off as shrill (and thus he comes off as a shill), and like many of his colleagues, it's at the expense of the NBA, as if antagonism toward the pros is required to be part of the college world.

But it is genuine. His insistence that Phelan has been grossly overlooked is just as genuine. And you don't have to have been passed up the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium to notice that this year's class is NBA-heavy. Five of the seven inductees are NBA legends, even though the three players (Adrian Dantley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon) had Hall-worthy college careers as well.

All are deserving. None can claim to be more deserving than Phelan, whose 830 wins includes the Division II national championship in 1962.

Vitale's explanation is valid. So is Thompson's - and his comes off as less agenda-driven. Phelan, he said, just did what he did too long ago.

"People are not interested in the past. How many people are historians?" Thompson said. "People like `now.' Most people look at `now.' ... Folks don't know. It's important for people to be acknowledged in their era, where folks have seen them and know what they've done.

"It's not done purposely," he added. "People just lose sight of a lot of guys who did a hell of a job."

Like Vitale, Thompson doesn't know what voting process got him into the Hall of Fame. It is far from transparent, not the way voters for the baseball and pro football halls and the Heisman Trophy are publicly accountable. It appears that basketball hall members have no role or say in anything. The Naismith voting is a mystery - who the voters are, what credentials they have, how they vote, what criteria there are.

The veil of secrecy, Thompson said, "is no excuse. There is no excuse." Go ahead and contact those, like Hall of Famers, who would know about Phelan's glory days in the 1960s and '70s. "We're just a phone call away," Thompson said. "But what system is perfect?"

Any system that keeps shutting out a man who won so many games, coached at one school his entire career and walked away with a pristine reputation is as imperfect as it gets.

"I can tell you he's been truly special," Vitale said of Phelan. "He was great. Anybody who can be successful, stay in one place for that long and be that successful, is special.

"That's a great thing, a great hall of fame," he said of the college shrine. "That's something I agree with - there should be more recognition for college achievement."

Vitale meant in Springfield, where there never again will be a lack of noise - but which still lacks a coach who deserved to be in long ago.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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