Sept. 28, 2002
EAST LANSING, Mich. - "This is easily the coolest thing that has ever happened to me."
Those were the sentiments of Associated Press basketball writer Jim O'Connell on his reception of the Curt Gowdy Award at the 2002 Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. While he was the only one to express his emotions in those exact words, it was indeed a great evening for everyone involved, especially the inductees.
Foremost in the mind of Spartan fans, and many of the thousands in attendance and the hundreds of thousands watching on television, was Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The player who transformed the way the game of basketball was played, and who also brought fans to the game was the final inductee of the evening. But that didn't stop other presenters and inductees from mentioning his impact on the game.
"I wish every kid would remember how hard he played the game," remarked Philadelphia 76ers head coach and Hall of Fame Class of 2002 member Larry Brown. "You made it easy on a lot of coaches. Basketball is the greatest team sport if played the right way."
Nearly two hours after the evening began, and after the inductions of Arizona coach Lute Olson, the late Drazen Petrovic of international and NBA fame, North Carolina State women's coach Kay Yow, the Harlem Globetrotters and Brown, it was finally Johnson's turn in the spotlight.
Master of ceremonies Ahmad Rashad introduced a highlight video saying:
"This is the player that revolutionized the game of basketball."
The audience at the Springfield Civic Center then turned its attention to the two big screens in the arena for a tribute video, including scenes from Johnson's days at Lansing Everett High School and Michigan State University. The video also included remarks from his college coach, Jud Heathcote.
But before Johnson could take the stage, he had to be introduced by a member of the Hall of Fame. For Johnson, there was no question who would present him. It had to be his long-time rival and now dear-friend Larry Bird.
During his introduction, Bird remembered seeing Johnson play for the first time.
"I've just seen the best player I'm ever going to see in my life," Bird would tell his brother.
After Bird and Johnson battled for the 1979 NCAA Championship and having entered the NBA at the same time, Bird realized that the two of them would always be grouped together.
"He made me work harder knowing that we'd be linked throughout our career."
Bird ended his introduction by alluding to the epic battles between his Boston Celtics and Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, and the fact that Johnson often found a way to win.
"I was going to speak from my heart. But man, he broke my heart so many times, do I have anything left?" joked Bird.
With that introduction, Johnson walked on stage accompanied by his wife, three kids and his mother and father. His induction was of such great magnitude that the Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board Dave Gavitt even changed the formal induction ceremony, taking the opportunity to recognize Johnson's special talents.
"You made your teammates better and you made the game better," remarked Gavitt.
It was finally Johnson's time to address the crowd, who greeted one of the game's all-time greats with a standing ovation. With flash bulbs flickering, the normally jovial Johnson had a little more subdued nature as he sincerely thanked all the different people who had helped him along the way.
He began by letting everyone know that his induction was the result of the efforts of more than just himself. He then took the opportunity to return the favor to Bird.
"Larry, you are what a basketball player should be," said Johnson.
Among the first group of people Johnson thanked were all the coaches who had instructed him during his route to stardom.
"To all my coaches, thank you for teaching me the fundamentals of the game. To my high school coach George Fox, thank you for teaching me that only by making my teammates better could we win championships.
"To Coach Heathcote, thank you for defying the basketball gods who said a 6-9 player couldn't be a point guard ... Thank you for also teaching me to be a perfectionist."
Johnson went on to thank his teammates, the NBA, his friends and finally his family. He spent several minutes thanking each individual family member for the different roles they played in his life.
Finally, Johnson echoed the thoughts expressed earlier by Coach Brown on the game of basketball.
"This game is great, but we should all play this game the way it should be played."
With that Johnson flashed his trademark smile and hugged Bird and his family members still on stage. In doing so, he provided a perfect ending to an amazing night.