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Why Del Harris and Other Hall of Famers Needed to Wait

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Del Harris tried to not take into consideration enshrinement within the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He told his avid supporters, including the Hall of Famer John Calipari, not to fret about his fate. It did little good.

Harris, 85, already had many awards and honors from his coaching profession: enshrinement within the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, lifetime achievement awards from Naismith and from the National Basketball Coaches Association, screen time in the unique “Space Jam.” But he admits that wasn’t quite enough.

“I don’t need to diminish any of the opposite awards and things, but I feel everybody understands when you’re a baseball guy, it’s Cooperstown,” he said. “When you’re a football guy, it’s Canton. And in basketball, it’s the birthplace of the sport.”

On Saturday, Harris might be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., the last of the summer’s salutes to sports heroes past after the Pro Football Hall of Fame held its induction in August and the Baseball Hall of Fame held its in July.

Harris’s long wait — he was last a head coach in 1999 — isn’t an outlier. Nearly every yr’s inductions within the American sports Halls of Fame feature honorees who’ve been asked to attend a long time to receive their officially sanctioned immortality. A mix of hope, logic and good old-fashioned denial is required. Regardless of how again and again they hear “higher luck next yr,” the long-skipped want the dignity.

Tony Boselli, 50, had not played within the N.F.L. since 2001 and had been a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist six times before he was inducted this summer. Boselli, who was a superstar left tackle for seven seasons, had talked along with his wife, Angi, about the potential of never getting in. “I’ll be wonderful; I’ll be OK,” he told her. “I even have an incredible life. I even have an incredible family. I’ve been blessed by God to give you the option to do what I really like to do. I even have great friends.”

It was the very best attitude to take, “especially being a finalist that again and again and being told that I didn’t make it,” Boselli added.

For Drew Pearson, a star receiver for the Dallas Cowboys within the Nineteen Seventies, the “logjam” of qualified candidates gives the Pro Football Hall of Fame its prestige and meaning. Pearson was finally inducted in 2021 after having retired in 1983. Because the Hall of Fame eluded his grasp, Pearson sought clarity. The method for induction, he said, has biases and politics, however it’s the very best option available.

“There are guys that say, ‘I don’t just like the Cowboys so I’m not voting for Drew Pearson’ and that style of thing,” he said, lamenting how there’s nothing a former player can do in that situation to assist his case. “You may’t go on the market and run any more routes. You may’t catch any more balls or Hail Marys. It’s what it’s, and also you hope that it’s ok.”

That doesn’t mean the method doesn’t rankle. Jim Kaat, a star pitcher for the Minnesota Twins who retired in 1983 but was not enshrined in Cooperstown until this summer, knew the writers wouldn’t vote him in. That was for the Seaver-Koufax class of pitchers. And the Hall of Fame’s veterans committees over time had routinely been populated by individuals who had never seen him play, he said, which was frustrating.

This yr, Kaat liked his possibilities. Voters on the Hall’s Golden Days Era Committee had played against him, played with him or were energetic when he pitched from 1959 to 1983. They knew he was durable and reliable and that his numbers dipped because he moved to the bullpen. He was named on 12 of the committee’s 16 ballots — precisely the number needed for election.

For Kaat, Pearson, Boselli and others, the sense of relief when their sport’s Hall of Fame does come calling will be palpable.

After Pearson was omitted one last time in 2020, he broke down. It was filmed by a Dallas news crew, and he said his response was not the exception. The rejection is personal. You simply never see it.

“It showed the committee what it means to us players, so don’t fiddle, OK?” he said. “Don’t fiddle with us, don’t have the biases, don’t have the politics.”

That pain continues to be the fact of Marques Johnson, a five-time N.B.A. All-Star within the Nineteen Seventies and 80s, and a star at U.C.L.A. within the late Nineteen Seventies. He has been a finalist for basketball’s Hall of Fame thrice, including 2022. He considered removing his name from consideration until his sons and friends dissuaded him.

Induction would put a “cap on an incredible profession, an incredible life, he said, but “it’s the not the be-all, end-all for me. There are more vital things.”

Encouragement from Hall of Famers corresponding to Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Bill Walton, he said, reinforced that he had been an elite player. But that praise doesn’t protect a psychic wound.

“Within the recovery process, we attempt to avoid the deliberate manufacturing of misery,” Johnson, who’s 20 years sober, added via text message. “That day, waiting to listen to whether I ‘made the cut,’ is one which I can easily do without. It dredges all sorts of memories, good and bad — my exceptional exploits and my shortcomings as a player and human being, on each counts.”

Time, though, can exact a toll. When Johnson’s mother Baasha, whom he known as Madea, was hospitalized with a stroke in October, he urged her like “a Baptist preacher” to hold on — Madea needed to make that trip to Springfield. She died Jan. 5. Kaat’s wife of 20 years, MaryAnn, died in 2008. His daughter, Jill, died in 2021.

Of the seven players elected into Cooperstown this yr, only three lived to see their induction.

Time, though, may bestow gifts. Kaat, who has remarried, shared the day along with his grandchildren and was inducted with longtime teammate and friend, Tony Oliva. Pearson, 71, has seen an uptick in endorsements and business opportunities. Boselli developed a kinship along with his classmates.

“You get to know their families — their wives, their kids — who they’re as men,” he said. “You go from perhaps casually knowing a few of these guys — you compete against them, perhaps see them around — to essentially being tied together ceaselessly in football history because the Class of 2022.”

For Bob Dandridge, who was elected into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 2021, the 39-year wait after his N.B.A. profession ended resulted in his children being sufficiently old to comprehend the occasion’s importance. Even his two basketball-obsessed grandsons, Thaddeus, 5, and Zachary, 7, were excited to attend. They recognized the legends of more moderen vintage corresponding to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Relations assembled “with none malice, just love.”

“Ten years ago,” Dandridge said, “I wouldn’t have had this sort of quality in my life. The wait has been awesome for me.”

Weeks before his induction, Harris, recovering from a back operation, couldn’t yet reflect on how the Hall of Fame has modified his life. But he knew the role basketball had played.

“I had graduated from college to be a preacher,” Harris said. “My Greek professor called me two weeks before school was speculated to start at seminary. He said, ‘I’ve been enthusiastic about you. I actually think you need to work a yr before you go to graduate school; there are not any scholarships for that. When you agree, I have already got a job for you.’”

Harris coached middle school basketball at King Springs School in Tennessee, a brief drive from Milligan College, his alma mater. That was in 1959. Coaching within the N.B.A. finals, writing six books and teaching in clinics worldwide followed. He’s still working in basketball, now as vp of the G-League’s Texas Legends.

It began with those girls and boys a long time ago. “As I saw their lives change,” Harris said, “mine modified.”

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