Houston -- The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its 10-member class this morning. (Shaq, Iverson, Tom Izzo, Sheryl Swoopes and Yao Ming were among them. So was the late Zelmo Beaty, who played one season as an Atlanta Hawk before jumping to the ABA.) I have no issue with any of those elected. My issue is that Lefty Driesell was one of three finalists who didn’t make it. This makes the third time he has been denied at the final voting.
The basketball world knows Lefty mostly for his time at Maryland, a bit for his earlier days at Davidson and a jot for his post-Terrapin posting at James Madison. We in Atlanta know him as the man who took Georgia State to the 2001 NCAA tournament and upset Wisconsin in Round 1. His time on the Concrete Campus wasn’t long – five seasons and 10 games of a sixth – and he resigned not two full years after his Panthers had beaten the Badgers. But still: We Atlantans liked him.
That was no surprise. Everybody likes Lefty. He’s a cornpone charmer – I don’t think he’d recoil at that description – and he took four different schools to the Big Dance. (Only two men have done it with five, and we Georgians know them well, too: Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith.) There was always the question as to whether Lefty could actually coach, as opposed to recruit, but there are those who wonder the same about Roy Williams, whose North Carolina Tar Heels will play for NCAA title tonight.
The greater issue with Lefty is that he coached Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose after he completed his Maryland eligibility and just after he’d been drafted by the Boston Celtics. A subsequent investigation found that Bias had spent four years in school and was nowhere close to graduation. The backlash cost Lefty his job.
That’s a blotch on his resume, yes. But John Calipari took two teams – UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 – to the Final Four and saw their participation vacated, and he made the Hall last year. (For the record, Calipari wasn’t implicated by the NCAA in either set of sanctions.)
This isn’t to say that Lefty – known as the Preacher Man for his ability to spin impassioned stories – was entirely a saint. He wanted to win. He wanted the best recruits. How Maryland pried Tom McMillen from North Carolina has been the subject of exhaustive study, and what would have been Lefty’s greatest coup fizzled when Moses Malone chose the ABA’s Utah Stars over a scholarship.
Lefty arrived in College Park determined to make the Terrapins “the UCLA of the East,” and he didn’t quite. They never made a Final Four, but they were darn good.
There are those who consider the 1974 ACC final the greatest game ever played. North Carolina State, ranked No. 1, won 103-100 in triple overtime. Had the Wolfpack lost, they wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament they eventually won in similarly historic fashion, ending UCLA’s run of seven consecutive titles in double OT in the Final Four. Maryland would have represented the ACC, and maybe the Terps would have beaten the Bruins in Greensboro. In December, Driesell’s team had come within a basket of felling UCLA, which hadn’t lost since 1971, in Pauley Pavilion.
When finally Lefty’s Terps won the ACC tournament, it was 1984 and conferences were sending more than one team to the NCAA. Still, it meant so much to the Lefthander that he said his intention was to “drive across North Carolina with the trophy on the hood of my car, saying, ‘Ah kin COACH!’ ”
(Translation for non-Southerners: “I can COACH!”)
The statement Driesell released Sunday night to Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun was surprising in its frankness , but that’s Lefty. From the statement: “I was surprised and disappointed to learn that I was not elected ... Basketball was my life for more than 50 years, I gave it everything I had. I could recount the wins and awards, but that information is readily available for everyone to see. I think my record speaks for itself.”
Then: “I respect the Hall of Fame, and if I were elected, it would be the capstone of my professional career.”
The Hall of Fame coaches still working – Jim Boeheim, Larry Brown, Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams and now Izzo – all have championships in their pockets. Lefty does not. He was the man who took teams far but never all the way. I can’t imagine enshrinement could mean more to anyone than it would to him.