From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
I wasn’t at the induction ceremony the night basketball great Elvin Hayes of Rayville and Eula D. Britton High joined the Class of 1988 in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. But I’ve been told.
The Class of 2015 is scheduled for induction Saturday night (June 27) before the biggest crowd in the event’s history. Organizers spent a part of this week planning how to comfortably adjust to the unprecedented response to Induction Weekend and Saturday’s banquet at the Special Events Center in Natchitoches, there on Front Street on the banks of the Cane River, which isn’t really a river.
But then, the banquet hall isn’t really a banquet hall as much as it’s a cozy stadium for the state’s best sports night of the year, one where fans and supporters and families get together and dress up to celebrate excellence demonstrated in an arena of entertainment and competition over a long period of time.
It’s a different kind of night, because you never know when an Elvin Hayes will happen.
An All-American and player of the year at Houston, an All-Star in 12 of his 16 NBA seasons, and a world champion with the Washington Bullets in 1978, Hayes, who played in an era before much cable television, said something really close to this during his happy and humble acceptance speech.
“When we beat UCLA and Lew Alcindor in ’68 before the biggest crowd to ever watch a basketball game at that time, I wondered if the people back home in Rayville were watching,” he said. “When we played in the Final Four and later in the NBA playoffs and finally in ’78 when we won the NBA title against the SuperSonics, even as they were in the locker room pouring champagne on my head and on the trophy, I wondered if the people back home in Rayville were watching…
“But tonight, a reason why this is so special, is I don’t have to wonder. Tonight, I know the people back home in Rayville, and all around Louisiana, are watching.”
Avery “Little General” Johnson, former NBA champ San Antonio Spur, former 5-4 basketball player in high school – he made it all the way to 5-10 – grew up on all the playgrounds that dotted the city, spread in points from the Lafitte Projects in New Orleans liked uneven spokes on the wheels of a bicycle, which is what he pedaled to get to games as a kid. From those asphalt courts he went to world champ, then NBA Coach of the Year in Dallas, and now to the SEC, where he’ll coach Alabama this winter.
But all those courts and moments and awards don’t have quite the pull of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which he’ll join this weekend as a member of the 2015 Class. “This,” he said, “is the top of the line. My roots are still in Louisiana.”
Shaquille O’Neal declared the town “Shaqatish” two years ago during his induction. In 2011, Bobby Hebert performed a 25-minutes (or more?) unplanned comedy routine when introducing his kicking teammate, Morten Andersen. After 15 minutes, Hebert finally said, “Now … about Mort…” Even Andersen wondered if his friend had forgotten about him.
You never know.
You want class? Joe Ferguson was inducted in 1994, three weeks after Buffalo Bills teammate O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco incident. It was in the back of everyone’s mind, of course. At the end of Ferguson’s gracious speech, Hall of Fame Chairman Doug Ireland recalls Joe saying precisely this, while more than 100 of Ferguson’s fellow Woodlawn High of Shreveport alums, teachers, coaches and friends “hung on every syllable”:
“Before I go, I want to share something with you,” Ferguson said. “We’ve all watched the news from Los Angeles, and I’ve been asked about it a lot. I’d like to ask you all for a favor: please pray for my friend O.J.. Thank you very much.”
Stories about the inductees will be on the sports pages all week; I hope they’ll team to make Saturday another night they’ll remember fondly, as they remember big wins or big plays or big friendships they’ve earned or were granted through athletics.
It would be tough to get in with a shoehorn this weekend, but maybe it’s time you planned to go, if you never have been. The Class of 2016 will be announced in the fall. Keep an eye out and think about a weekend in Natchitoches and being part of a once-a-year-night, a night when all the people back home, and all around Louisiana, are watching.