Relationships make Hoop Hall's class of 2012 special

Sept. 10, 2012
Left: Seven-foot-four Ralph Sampson towers over the podium at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement press conference on Sept. 6. Top right: Reggie Miller looks to the rafters at the Hall of Fame's Center Court as he discusses the honor of being enshrined. Bottom right: Don Nelson reflects on enshrinement.

Reminder Publications photos by Chris Maza

By Chris Maza

SPRINGFIELD – While reaching the pinnacle of stardom through induction to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame is a terrific achievement, for some players, the relationships with those who helped along the way are what make the moment special.

Count Reggie Miller, one of the most clutch athletes in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) among those people.

Upon learning that he had been selected as a member of the class of 2012, Miller's first call was to his sister, Cheryl, who was inducted in 1995 after an illustrious college career and Olympic gold medal performance. It was only fitting after the role she played in his life, he said.

"My ears are still ringing from her screaming," Miller said with a smile. "It's no secret that without Cheryl's accomplishments and hard work and dedication to the game of basketball, I don't know if I would ever have gotten to this stage. She's meant everything to my identity. She's the reason why I'm here today."

Enshrinement weekend was a bittersweet one for Miller, who expected to share the momentous occasion with Mel Daniels, who was also selected as a member of the class of 2012.

Miller, two-time American Basketball Association Most Valuable Player with the Pacers who eventually served 20 years in their front office, took ill and was unable to attend, a fact Miller said he was unaware of until the morning prior to the enshrinement press conference on Sept. 6.

"I wish he was here because he was going to be my crutch to lean on and vice versa," Miller said. "We were going to lean on each other for this, but I think I have broad enough shoulders to carry the mantle."

As one of the first people to meet Miller when he got off the plane in Indiana after being drafted by the Pacers in 1987, Daniels was an integral part of his personal and professional development, Miller said.

"Along with [late Pacers star] Roger Brown, Mel basically showed me the dos and don'ts of Indiana," he said. "There are only so many people you can trust in the world today and Mel was one of those guys you could go to war with. He always had my back and I'm very grateful for that."

Miller also reflected on his appreciation of Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh, who made him the 11th overall pick in the 1987 draft.

"He took a chance. It wasn't a very popular choice in 1987," Miller said. "Donnie was the one man who took a gamble and I wanted to make that gamble pay off for him. It didn't in terms of championships, but hopefully he and I left something positive."

Miller wasn't the lone inductee into this year's class to form a relationship with a fellow 2012 inductee

Don Nelson, the winningest coach in NBA history who also won five titles with the Boston Celtics, coached the 1988-89 Golden State Warriors team that included inductee Ralph Sampson.

That year, Sampson, who was characterized as a 7-foot-4 man who could handle the ball as if he was 6-foot-4, was considered a perfect fit for Nelson's system. Though he struggled with injury, Sampson said that he valued the experience.

"To be able to play in that system at 7-foot-4 and be able to bring the ball up the court if I wanted to or shoot threes, if I had been able to play there longer and been a little healthier, we could have had a lot of fun," he said. "To play for a guy who played the game and understood the game, but also had the most wins in the history of the game, it speaks for itself."

Nelson said his most profound memories of Sampson revolved around his character.

"I really enjoyed Ralph as a human being," Nelson said. "He had some physical problems when I had him, but the person was wonderful. He couldn't play up to what his potential was because of some injuries, but he was a great guy and he gave me everything he had. What more can you ask out of a guy?"

Nelson admitted he didn't expect to be inducted.

"I was on my back porch in Maui smoking a cigar and having a cup of coffee," he said of the moment when he got the call. "The other three or four times that I got the call, it was a negative, so I was waiting for a call figuring that it was another time I didn't make it, so I was pretty surprised."

When asked what his favorite basketball moment was, besides his enshrinement, Nelson said he didn't think of things that way.

"I look at it as the whole thing, really," he said. "I've been a pretty lucky guy. To have something you love the most in life and be able to spend your entire life doing that, that doesn't happen to very many people."

Jamaal Wilkes joined Sampson and Nelson as three former members of the Golden State Warriors inducted in 2012.

Wilkes won two national championships with the UCLA and won four NBA championships with the Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers and said that was the way he measured his career.

"I always tried to define my success in terms of the team's success and fortunately we had such success – we won a championship here and there," he said. "But to be singled out by the Hall of Fame for this honor just means so much to me and my family and what I worked very hard to accomplish."

While not a player Nike co-founder Phil Knight's contributions to basketball have been immeasurable as his company was the first to work with athletes, including the creation of one of the world's most iconic partnerships with Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. For that, Knight was chosen for induction as contributor to the game, an honor that had him visibly moved at the press event.

"I never knew there was a such a thing as a contributor category," he said. "When I got the call, I was absolutely stunned. I'm still very, very surprised and I can't tell you how emotional I am about it. It's a tremendous thrill and a great honor."

Don Barksdale, who broke the color barrier as the first black player to be named an NCAA All-American, to make the US Olympic team and to play in an NBA All-Star game, was honored posthumously with his son, Derek, accepting the honor in his place.

"Just considering it's been almost 60 years since my father has been on a basketball court, I think it means a lot to how long-lasting his impact on basketball has been," Darren Barksdale said. "I know my father definitely wanted to be here, but to have all of his family members here and his friends who are on this stage, I think it will mean that much more. I know he's looking down on us and for me, I'm forever proud of him."

Among the other inductees in this years class were Katrinia McClain, one of the most decorated players in Team USA history, including two Olympic gold medals; Chet Walker, a gritty and talented star for the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers who missed only 21 games in his 13-year career; the All American Red Heads, a pioneering women's basketball team that was dubbed the female version of the Harlem Globetrotters; and longtime referee Hank Nichols, who is considered one of the progressive architects of collegiate basketball rules.

Former Soviet Union national team coach Lidia Alexeeva was also honored, but unable to attend.

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