NEW CASTLE – They came on behalf of fathers and sons, coaches and players, brothers and best friends. Some came with folders and handouts. Some came with friends. Most came alone.
All came for someone else, but all came seeking the same thing – a slice of forever.
They came to New Castle, past the Steve Alford All-American Inn on Ind. 3, to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. On this day the parking lot filled up – so they parked on the grass, the gravel, the road out front. They parked in the pharmacy lot across the street.
They walked into the Hall of Fame, with the shrines to Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird and Rick Mount. They ate barbecue provided by a local church. They had one hour to think about what they would say, how they would say it, and what was at stake.
They have two minutes.
* * *
That guy in the salmon shirt, he’s my competition. So is the woman in the black sweater. And the retired minister from Arlington, Ind. And everyone else here, come to think of it.
We’re at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame – all 22 of us – to make a Hall of Fame case for someone we care about. But not every candidate will get inducted. Not even close.
A maximum of 12 men and 10 women will be inducted this year. There are 356 nominees.
Most of the 356 candidates won’t have a presentation on their behalf. Most have been forgotten, even by themselves. Former IU player and coach Dan Dakich was nominated years ago and remains on the active list, but he was one of 334 candidates to go without a presentation last week in New Castle. Not even Dakich knew he was a candidate this year.
“I was?” he asked me.
A first-year candidate like 3,134-point Bedford North Lawrence scorer Damon Bailey? He starred at IU, was drafted by the Pacers, won a girls state title as the North Lawrence coach. Nobody is here to present Bailey’s case. No need. He’s in.
Other candidates, like Larry Parks of Arlington High School in Rush County, need help. Parks is a fine candidate, a star at Arlington and Eastern Kentucky, but it’s been 40 years. His high school isn’t around anymore. Neither is Parks. One of his best friends, minister Bill Smith, presided over his funeral in 1996. Smith was among eight people from Arlington at New Castle last Thursday, standing as one before the Hall committee.
One night a year, the Hall of Fame closes for business at 5 p.m., then open its doors to people like retired minister Bill Smith. One night a year, members of the public can present a candidate’s case.
I’m here for my friend Cleveland Harp.
Cleveland doesn’t know it, not until he reads the newspaper this morning, but I was in New Castle to present him to the Hall selection committee. He’s the forgotten star from Crispus Attucks, I told the committee, a late bloomer who didn’t play until his junior year, didn’t play much until late in his senior season, and then discovered his gift for the game. He made All-Sectional. All-Region. All-Semistate. He helped Crispus Attucks to the 1953 final four, then signed out of high school with the Harlem Globetrotters. He spent a dozen years as a barnstorming showman, the pinnacle for an African-American basketball player in the eight-team, barely integrated NBA of the early 1950s.
Cleveland’s going to have a hard time making it into the Hall. So many strong candidates. Only 12 spots.
The Hall gave me access, letting me into the presentation room for the entire evening. One at a time, presenters were allowed inside to speak for two minutes. Then they had to leave. Me, I got to stay.
I saw hopes and dreams. I saw audacity.
I saw desperation.
* * *
The tricks these people used? Transparent. Shameful.
Wish I’d thought of them for Cleveland Harp, who deserved better than he got.
Cleveland deserved a presentation from his coach at Attucks, the charismatic Ray Crowe, who would’ve thundered from the lectern on his former player’s behalf. Crowe nominated Cleveland by letter in 1998 but then took sick, never making the trip to New Castle to present Cleveland’s case in person.
Cleveland needed more than he got, a stammering sports writer out of his element. What Cleveland needed was a gimmick, a trick like the one delivered by Gary Grieger – an Indiana hoops hall of famer in his own right. Grieger, an Evansville Bosse and IU star in the 1960s, was presenting his brother, Russ Grieger, the starting point guard on Evansville University’s undefeated team of 1965.
Gary Grieger came from Florida, looking like he stepped off a Boca Raton golf course – salmon shirt, black shorts – and armed with a pile of red folders full of Russ Grieger information. Gary left the folders on the back table, something for the committee to chew on later.
Gary Grieger is my competition, and he’s better at this than I am. No fair, I tell him when I see his folders.
“I really want Russ to get in,” he told me. “I came 1,014.2 miles for this.”
Presentations are ordered by distance traveled, and Grieger is introduced to the selection committee as having come 1,014 miles.
“Point two,” Grieger says as he walks into the room, smiling and waving those folders. Presenters stand at a lectern in front of three Hall of Fame members (and voters). Former New Castle star Ray Pavy, paralyzed in a car accident while at IU in 1961, is in a wheelchair with the stopwatch. To his right is former Ben Davis coach Steve Witty, the Hall’s executive vice president. To his right is Steve Alford’s father, Sam, the former New Castle coach. Sitting behind that trio are another 15 or 20 Hall of Fame voters. And me.
After Grieger has spoken for 90 seconds, Pavy gives a signal to Witty, who holds up a yellow piece of paper. Presenters know what that means. We’d been told the yellow paper means we have 30 seconds left. Red means time is up.
“In conclusion,” Grieger says, and keeps going.
Pavy checks his watch, gives another signal, and Witty waves his red piece of paper. Time’s up. Grieger finishes, thanks the committee and leaves.
And we’re off. There are 22 presentations, each a unique snowflake of loyalty.
* * *
Some spoke from memory. Some had notes. Dayton Merrell presented his father’s candidacy – ex-Northwestern High School player and 36-year high school coach Gary Merrell – by reading from his iPhone.
One presenter referenced Steve Alford, noting his candidate’s 91.2-percent free throw rate was in “Alford territory,” a reference aimed perhaps at Alford’s father. Five presenters referenced Milan, attaching their candidate to the most famous story in Indiana high school basketball history.
Edward Englehart, Merrillville’s coach from 1937-60, was presented by his daughter, Sharon. She spent much of her father’s candidacy on Milan, noting that her father had played in the same Butler Fieldhouse in the 1930 state championship game for the Washington Hatchets, and saying she herself had been in attendance in 1954 for Bobby Plump’s shot.
“That (shot) was Indiana basketball at its finest, and that’s what my father was all about,” she said, concluding a presentation that was less logical, more spellbinding.
Former Huntingburg star John Wellemeyer’s presenter, his high school coach Jack Davis, spoke for two minutes and kept going. He talked through the yellow paper, through the red, reaching 4½ minutes before he was politely cut off by a Hall of Fame executive.
“I’m sorry,” Davis muttered, truly sad. “I didn’t talk fast enough.”
Ray Estes, the folksy former coach at Anderson, presented 1969 Anderson graduate Rod Freeman as a fine player, father, grandfather. On his way out, Estes walked past 90-year-old Hall voter Jim Powers Sr., who played for John Wooden at South Bend Central, and hollered: “Hey Jimmy, how are you! Gosh darnit you ugly rascal!”
Hebron star Bob Smock’s presenter, longtime coach Jerry Hoover, announced his own credentials: “I’ve been in this game for 65 years,” he said, sneering and peering around the room, “and I know half the people in the Hall of Fame. And believe me, Bob Smock deserves strong consideration.”
Hoover said Smock played harder than anyone he’d seen in almost 50 years of coaching, then said Smock became a farmer and farmed harder than anyone.
“He took 240 acres,” Hoover said, “and made 800 acres out of ’em.”
* * *
Some left after their presentation. Others lingered outside the room, watching what was happening inside on a closed-circuit television screen.
“I’m tired,” Bill Smith told me. “I guess we just wait.”
The Hall class of 2016 will be announced in December, but bad news doesn’t mean the end. Next year is another year. Gary Grieger has come twice from Florida, coming 1,014 (point two) miles for this. If he needs to come back, he’ll come back. He’ll have his folders and his notes, but he’ll stand in front of the committee and not look at any of it.
“I can do it from memory,” he says. “This is my brother.”
This is devotion. This is pressure. This is two minutes, and this is immortality.