In the so-called inner circles of women’s basketball – just like in the inner circles of anything else – there is often an understandable reticence to voice any criticism of anything that is universally regarded as a “good cause.”
Certainly, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame falls under that category. The sport’s history is deeper, richer and more bountiful than most people realize or even think about. Much of it was not covered by the media – and even today, we know there’s still a deficit in that regard. So there is a need to as much as possible have the past chronicled retroactively, if you will. And a museum/hall of fame can lead the way in that.
The passion for women’s basketball in Tennessee, combined with the organizational zeal of people there – led by 2010 inductee Gloria Ray – made the Hall of Fame into a reality in Knoxville. It was and still is an amazing achievement.
So what I’m writing is not meant to put anybody’s nose out of joint or to disrespect the work that’s been done. We all know what it feels like to have worked your tail off and then hear criticism and become very defensive. The thing is, if it’s constructive criticism, once you turn off the defense mechanism, you can usually find the value in it.
At least I hope those involved in the Hall of Fame can find value in what I’m saying. I’m not in the “inner circle” … reporters aren’t supposed to be. We have to stay outsiders to maintain as much objectivity as possible and be able to ask “Why?” “Why not?” and “How come?”
So here goes. This year was the first time I attended the Hall of Fame induction weekend. I realize not every year was exactly like this one, but in general, I got the sense that this was largely representative of what the process has been like.
Friday night at the Hall of Fame, there was dinner for the inductees and their friends/families, followed by a “story-telling” session moderated by broadcaster Debbie Antonelli. The inductees sat on stools in front of the gathering, and Antonelli asked them questions while also inviting friends/family to come to a microphone in the center aisle and share their thoughts.
Debbie is really very, very skilled at making these types of settings run smoothly, and that is not easy. She had to be prepared to carry it all with her questions if it was a “shy” audience that didn’t say much. Which was kind of the case at first, until everyone warmed up and there was a regular procession to the microphone. At which point, Debbie still kept things moving while allowing everyone who wanted to say something a chance to speak.
I was there along with some other “outsider” folks, including my friend Helen Wheelock of the Women’s Hoops Blog. She is a teacher, historian, writer and media critic/prodder, and we noted how the “relaxed” nature of this evening prompted some very good stories and a feeling for all involved of knowing the inductees a little better.
On Saturday, there was the 4Kay run/walk to benefit the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, followed by an autograph session with the inductees. Then in the evening at the Tennessee Theater in downtown Knoxville, there was a silent auction/reception, the actual induction ceremony, and then a post-ceremony reception.
The ceremony consisted of performances by an orchestra and the Hall of Fame choir, a promotional video by HOF sponsor Eastman Chemical and speeches by the inductees. Antonelli was the host at this event, too.
Each inductee was “introduced” via video by the person of their choice … for Rebecca Lobo, for instance, it was Geno Auriemma; for Teresa Weatherspoon, it was Leon Barmore. What seemed the oddest choice was Lew Perkins for former Maryland coach Chris Weller. Perkins, now the athletic director at Kansas, was AD at Maryland from 1987-90, during which time Weller’s Terps went to the Women’s Final Four. Weller must have felt a bond with Perkins … but it still seemed strange.
The induction ceremony itself didn’t “feel” like some grand celebration of women’s basketball. It felt like a chance for the well-to-do of Knoxville to dress up for an extended “happy hour” and open their wallets for the Hall of Fame. In some cases, perhaps more out of a sense of civic duty – with a large dollop of University of Tennessee pride _ than out of true love for women’s basketball.
Now, I’m not saying that the folks there weren’t big women’s basketball fans. I’m sure several in attendance would say there were. But it was a crowd that didn’t appear very diverse, and it just seemed to lack what I’d call a real palpable sense of passion for the game.
Obviously, the HOF needs donor support. And we all should understand the facts of life: In general, people who have the money to donate “big” to such causes generally want some privacy and exclusivity to an event connected to the cause. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I just think the induction itself needs to be “inclusive” rather than “exclusive.” Women’s basketball is a sport with a fan base that’s much more working class/middle class. People such as that, for the most part, are not going to – or simply can’t afford to – pay a minimum of $100 just to get in the building so they can get some cheese and crackers, listen to several (often rambling) speeches and then pick up a dessert.
Thus, having the induction in this type of setting simply shuts out what I would call the average fan of women’s basketball. It’s more a big cocktail party, and while those things do have their place _ and we’ll mention again, money makes the world go ’round _ they generally miss or obscure what is, to me, the real soul of women’s basketball.
It’s a sport that always has had to fight – first for its very existence and then for respect and recognition. (An on-going battle.) In fact, that’s one of the things Helen pointed out that’s lacking in the Hall of Fame itself. That real, true, honest, rending of how women’s basketball hasn’t just gone against apathy or indifference (although those forces are both very strong themselves) but also really organized efforts to stop it entirely or keep it from really flourishing.
I think the Hall should have more of a sense of the righteous anger felt by the people who’ve participated in and supported women’s basketball, and an acknowledgment of the hell-raising many of them have had to do to get fair opportunities for the sport and themselves.
And in that same vein, I think a Hall of Fame induction ceremony that is neither geared toward a really representative audience for the sport nor is particularly entertaining are both examples of lost opportunities.
The latter part may prompt some hurt feelings, but I simply have to call this as I saw it. It was a ceremony that was high on unnecessary formality and inductee discomfort and low on entertainment value or historical celebration. That might sound like standard procedure for such an event. But does it have to be?
Fact: Most people are not great public speakers. Put them in fancy clothes on a stage with bright lights preventing them from really seeing their audience, and it’s fairly likely they are going to ramble, misspeak and generally feel nervous and eager to “get it over with” … yet keep talking and talking.
Does this setup really make any sense? This is supposed to be a huge reward for their contributions to the game of basketball. This is supposed to be FUN, exciting and exhilarating. It’s not supposed to be an ordeal.
And I’m not saying it is that for everyone. Some people can excel at this. Lobo is a professional broadcaster, and she handled her speech with the precision of someone who is very used to being on camera and thoroughly understands how much you have to practice and prepare to make such a performance look polished and relaxed. It was terrific. But most inductees are not like Lobo.
Furthermore, there was a disappointing lack of video tribute to the 2010 inductees. There were brief video highlights – and I mean brief – that played as each inductee was walking onto the stage for her speech. The videos looked rather hodge-podge and random.
Just as an example, how can you induct Teresa Weatherspoon into the Hall of Fame and not show a video clip of “The Shot” in Game 2 of the WNBA finals in 1999? I think most women’s hoops fan would agree it is the most famous shot in WNBA history.
How can you induct Rebecca Lobo into the Hall of Fame and not show a video clip of her with arms upraised running down the court after UConn had clinched the 1995 NCAA title?
How can you induct Teresa Edwards into the Hall of Fame and not have video clips (or at least a photo montage) of her from each of the five Olympics in which she participated? What could better represent the breadth of her career than seeing her mature over the course of the 16 years between her first and fifth Olympics?
Far, far more than the Naismith Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame needs video as an integral part of its induction ceremony. The vast majority of Naismith inductees have been and will continue to be men, and a great many of them are quite famous. People have seen their entire career on television.
By contrast, one of the biggest issues with women’s sports is lack of visibility. At the induction ceremony Saturday, I kept thinking, “How can there be so little video display of these accomplished people actually doing the thing that they are being inducted for?”
I have mentioned in this blog before the annual WIN for KC sports awards luncheon that’s held every year in Kansas City. They give out various awards there, too, but do them like this: videos are made where the award-winner talks about what athletics means to her, her background, her hopes for the future, etch. They are shown in action at what they do. These are well-done videos that really are effective and inspiring.
And they don’t need to be super-expensive, by any means. There’s no reason the HOF couldn’t find a way to do this in a cost-efficient and yet very effective way. Reach out to the inductees’ schools for help. We’re living in the YouTube generation, for heaven’s sake – a LOT of people know how to make videos.
I don’t know any other way to say this than being blunt: People come off looking much more polished when they are just be able to talk freely and then have that edited down to the best nuggets. Do this for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, combine it with video highlights from their playing or coaching careers, add in musical accompaniment … and that makes for a more informative and entertaining tribute to the person than them making a long speech they’re nervous about anyway.
Each inductee could still address the crowd live, briefly. And then why not have a Q&A session monitored by Antonelli as one of the feature events of the induction ceremony? It would impart more of the inductees’ natural personality to the audience in a more relaxed way without that person having to be alone, front and center in the spotlight, sweating through a speech.
It seems to me a ceremony like that would be more enjoyable for both the audience and the inductees themselves. (And perhaps then some outlet – maybe ESPN3? _ would consider live-streaming it so fans who were not there could still watch it.)
Then there’s the question of when this induction is held: in the summer time. Would it make more sense to have it in November and combine it with the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic? That used to be a doubleheader, but now is a single game.
Television and sponsors made that decision. But if I were daydreaming, I would at least wonder about having the doubleheader come back, be held in Knoxville every year, and allow fans to plan for a full weekend of live hoops and an induction ceremony.
However, if an induction ceremony any time during the winter is simply out of the question, might the WNBA agree to have one game in the summer at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena? (Maybe the All-Star Game, or maybe a marquee matchup.) And then have that paired with the HOF induction.
And isn’t there some way to get a lot more youngsters – not real little kids, but those old enough to be playing basketball and starting to look for role models _ to the induction? I’m not naive – realistically there would still need to be some exclusive party or something for the bigger HOF donors. But it seems like there would be a way to cover all bases.
Admittedly, I’m just tossing out a lot of ideas, and the reality is that the Hall of Fame folks may say, “We can’t and don’t want to do any of this. We like the ceremony exactly the way we have it now.”
A lot of the non-Tennessee people involved think this is Knoxville’s thing, Tennessee’s thing, and they don’t want to rock the boat or ruffle feathers. And that leaves the Hall of Fame induction with a parochial feel that is understandable but a bit frustrating.
I just have to say that experiencing it and watching it this past weekend, I was left with the belief this event could be markedly better and enjoyed by more people with some changes that, to me, could be realistically implemented.