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Hall of Fame Is Heavenly for Basketball Fans

January 06, 1991|JERRY DeFELICE | DeFelice is an Aurora, Colo., free-lance writer who worships the game of basketball

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — They come like pilgrims to a shrine. In this case, however, it's not Moslems to Mecca; it's basketball fans to Springfield, Mass., home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

For dedicated roundball fans who see their favorite sport as something of a religion, 1991 is the equivalent of a holy year. The Hall of Fame will be celebrating 100 years since Dr. James Naismith raised a peach basket 10 feet off the ground, flung a ball at it and began his new game with 13 commandments, er, rules.

The evolution of the game-- its history and most illustrious players, coaches and officials--is displayed throughout the Hall of Fame, in a building that was originally part of Springfield College. Inside, it's a lively mix of memorabilia and participatory exhibits honoring the only major sport founded in America, with enough activity on hand to force hoopsters of all ages to eventually call their own timeout.

Visitors to the Hall, which first opened its doors in 1969 and was renovated in 1985, are greeted with basketballs falling from heaven. Or so it seems, as orange roundballs rain down from the ceiling of the three-story building, bounding high off metal rims and through wire cables that serve as a giant net to form a cascading basketball fountain. Their return by chain delivery sets the heavenly spheres in motion again.

On the other side of the main staircase, a 40-foot hardwood backdrop is painted in colors and patterns that reflect changes over the years in the basketball court's "key" area.

The best game plan for visiting the Hall of Fame calls for starting on the third floor, where the 168 inductees to the Hall are honored and most of the game's history is on display.

Among the historical exhibits on the floor, the Early Game section ties the development of the sport to changes in American society.

The game began inauspiciously enough when the Canadian-born Naismith--a doctor who never practiced who was also an ordained minister who never preached--took a class of "incorrigibles" at the local Springfield YMCA as test subjects and developed his new game. He was seeking to replace an antagonism toward physical exertion with a zest for sport.

In the absence of anything better to serve as a goal for the ball, peach baskets were nailed to a balcony, 10 feet off the floor. Even with the many changes the game has since endured, the height of the basket remains a sacrosanct measure.

The doctor argued against naming the game "Naismithball," which he saw as a sure way to kill it. Instead, he listened to one of his pupils, and the game of basketball was born. A relic of the original floor used by Naismith is encased in glass.

The game's appeal was quick and widespread. No sooner had they cut out the bottom of the baskets to speed up play than wood replaced the wire backboard. Home teams would no longer be able to adjust the wires to help guide their shots through the hoop.

Games were played in social halls, before and after dances. By 1896, professional basketball was born in Trenton, N.J.

Presumably, a kinder, gentler sports fan emerged in 1926. That's when the wire cages surrounding the courts, constructed to protect players from unruly spectators, were removed. The term "cager," synonymous with basketball player, remains in use to this day.

There are smaller sections of the Hall of Fame devoted to organized play at the professional, college and even the high-school level. These areas are a mix of historical artifact, game memorabilia, various highlight films shown on TV monitors, still photographs and anecdotes attesting to the game's appeal. Display cases are adorned with pins, pompons, game programs and other byproducts of basketball spirit.

In addition to the obvious tributes, the museum displays a unique sampling of items designed to represent the feel and flavor of the game. Thus, George Mikan's funky 1940s eyeglasses take a spot in the case next to National Basketball Assn. All-Star game programs. Visitors will pass former Detroit Pistons all-star center Bob Lanier's bronzed, size-22 playing shoes on the way to the Naismith Memorial Corner, which honors the game's founder. The third-floor Honors Court includes dedications to, among others, former Los Angeles Lakers all-time greats Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. John Wooden, who coached UCLA to a record 10 championships, is the only member of the Hall of Fame to be recognized as both a player--he was a three-time All-America guard at Purdue--and coach.

The John R. Wooden Award, which annually honors the best player in college basketball, is among the trophies and honors on display at the entrance to the Hall's college section.

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