The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will soon welcome two of the sport’s game-changing stars — one big and one small.
Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson headline the Class of 2016 to be enshrined on Friday. Joining them in the 10-member class will be Chinese star Yao Ming, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, longtime Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and NBA executive Jerry Reinsdorf, along with four posthumous inductees.
Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo, a 2004 inductee, said it might be one of the best classes he has seen.
“I think it’s an extraordinary class,” Colangelo told The Associated Press. “It’s true that each year we think it’s a great class. But some years some of them do stand out.”
O’Neal, a four-time NBA champion and seventh on the all-time scoring list, was one of the NBA’s most popular stars for what he did both on and off the court. The 7-foot (2.13-meter) center again drew all eyes to him during Thursday’s jacket ceremony for the inductees.
After he slipped on his custom orange blazer, O’Neal theatrically waved off Hall of Fame president and CEO John Doleva, clearing the way for the man who once called himself “The Big Aristotle” to strut solo across the stage as camera bulbs flashed.
Then, when he was seated on the dais, O’Neal sprung to his feet and relieved Doleva, who was struggling to reach the massive shoulders of the 7-foot-6 (2.29-meter) Yao. O’Neal grabbed the jacket and gleefully assumed the role of impromptu butler for his fellow big man.
His antics started much earlier. Swoopes told a story of O’Neal promising her $1 million if she would fake a fall during the class’ walk to the stage. She declined, but only because she said O’Neal wouldn’t “show me the money.”
Later, O’Neal explained that his bravado was only his attempt to savor every moment of the experience. He said his speech Friday will be a love letter to those who helped him achieve a basketball dream that didn’t seem real when he was a teenager.
“I don’t memorize a lot of stuff, but I have this one memorized,” O’Neal said of his speech. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I bought about 1,000 tickets to each event. All my family, everybody will be there. It’s just great.”
He said being in the same class with a guy like Iverson was appropriate for two players who brought their own unique styles to the NBA — O’Neal as an imposing force in the middle and Iverson as a small player whose skill and personal bravado still resonate today.
“He had a lot of heart,” O’Neal said of Iverson. “We’re similar in the aspect that we did it our way. … I was only going to do it my way. He did it his way. Cultural icon. A lot of things were implemented because of his style — with the dress code — and the way he wears chains and big tattoos and all that stuff. He made it cool for that to happen.”
Iverson missed Thursday’s jacket ceremony, arriving late to speak with the media. He got emotional when he was asked about the people he credited for his success and highlighted John Thompson, his college coach at Georgetown, as well as Larry Brown, his longtime NBA coach with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“That’s the only thing that gets me here, is my teammates. My teammates and my coaches,” said the former NBA Rookie of the Year and 2001 Most Valuable Player. “That’s the only reason I’m here. All those guys sacrificed their games and sacrificed things for me.”
O’Neal said Iverson’s crossover of Michael Jordan during his rookie season in 1997 was the definition of the kind of player Iverson was.
“Everybody talks about his move against Michael Jordan,” O’Neal said. “You got to have (guts) to pull off a move against a legend like that.”
Yao ushered in a new era of international basketball when he left China to become the top pick of the NBA draft in 2002. As a member of the Houston Rockets, he earned All-Rookie honors and would go on to be an eight-time All-Star. He was named a three-time FIBA Asian Championship Most Valuable Player.
“When I’m walking through the Hall, for the first time I feel I’m so small,” Yao said. “I look up to the roof top and all the pictures around … I really sense all the people before me that Mr. Naismith made possible with the life he had.”
The four being inducted to the Hall of Fame posthumously are National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics coaching legend John McClendon, former referee Darrell Garretson, American Basketball Association star Zelmo Beaty and early African-American pioneer Cumberland Posey.