SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — Fans waved a German flag and chanted Dirk Nowitzki’s name when he walked the red carpet into Symphony Hall on Saturday night for the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. In his acceptance speech, the former Dallas big man told his parents, “Danke.”
Tony Parker’s fans whooped it up when he took the stage to lead off the proceedings. “There are a lot of French people in town. Sorry,” the San Antonio Spurs point guard said.
Spain was well-represented, too, with Pau Gasol shouting out his national team — “mi familia” — before joining what may be the greatest international class of inductees in the Springfield shrine’s history.
“I want to give a special mention to those first Europeans, who came here, across the ocean, who took a chance,” said Gasol, who fell in love with the sport when the 1992 Olympics were held in his hometown, Barcelona. “I was 12. It changed my life. The Dream Team showed us how basketball could be played.”
The Class of 2023 brought a distinctly international flavor to the basketball hall.
Nowitzki was the first European-born player to win the NBA MVP award, in 2007. Parker’s NBA Finals MVP award that year was the first for a European. In 2002, Gasol was the NBA’s first international rookie of the year.
The Spurs were well represented, too, led by longtime coach and five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich, and Parker, the point guard on four of those title-winning teams. Becky Hammon, who after a career in the WNBA joined the Spurs as the first woman to serve as a full-time NBA assistant coach, was also honored. Gasol played his last two healthy seasons with the Spurs.
“Coach Pop — it starts with him,” Parker said.
Others enshrined include Dwyane Wade — a key piece of three NBA championship teams in Miami. He was greeted with chants of “Let’s go Heat!” before asking he crowd to pipe down because Popovich had taken up too much time.
Wade asked his loved ones to stand as he thanked them, including his wife, the actress Gabrielle Union.
“Thank you for learning every ref’s name in the NBA, and for screaming at them so I didn’t have to,” he said. “Saved a lot of fine money.”
He concluded by inviting his father — Dwyane Wade Sr. — onto the stage. “We’re in the Hall of Fame, Pop,” he said before one final hug.
Former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, who led the Wolfpack to the 1983 NCAA title and went on to be a broadcaster and advocate for cancer research, was inducted posthumously.
Rounding out the class were the silver medal-winning 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team; former Purdue coach Gene Keady, a seven-time Big Ten coach of the year; former Texas A&M women’s coach Gary Blair, who took two teams to the Final Four; longtime coach at Amherst and two-time Division III national champion David Hixon; and Gene Bess — who won 1,300 games as a junior college coach at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
The inductees received their Hall of Fame rings and jackets on Friday at a news conference, which Hammon missed because the Aces had a game in Las Vegas that night. In her speech, she broke down when thanking Popovich.
“I know you weren’t trying to be courageous when you hired me,” she said. “You changed the trajectory of my life and so many other girls and young women.”
Undrafted by the WNBA, Hammon went on to be a six-time All-Star before joining Popovich in San Antonio. She coached the Aces to a WNBA championship last season.
“The amount of times I hear ‘no’ or had a door shut was the amount of times I was going to go through a chimney or bust through a window to find a way,” Hammon said. “I wouldn’t change the hard parts, because the hard parts were necessary to build the courage for whatever comes next.”
Popovich made light of his basketball talents and his image as a foul-mouthed media foil. He told the players presenting him to sit down and “shush.” “Don’t speak, just sit there,” Popovich said as he took the microphone.
Turning to Parker, he said: “With Tony, I just asked him to be perfect. If I coached him now the way I did then, I would be in handcuffs.”
Parker smiled and nodded his head.
As a player at the Air Force Academy, Popovich said, he was frequently kicked out of practice, adding with a smirk, “I know that you all know now that I am a totally mature individual.”
When the music tried to play him off early, Popovich sent host Ahmad Rashad back off the stage. He thanked Tom James, who as a communications vice president with the Spurs is tasked with trying to keep Popovich from getting in trouble. And then the coach went off and did it again, poking the league for abandoning the city of Seattle.
“Come on, man, Seattle,” he said to former SuperSonics guard Gary Payton, who was in the crowd.
But Popovich choked up when he thanked his family, saying as if it would be news to those who see him as a sideline ogre: “I have a family. People think that I just do basketball. Basketball doesn’t love us back. We use it like a bar of soap. … I don’t remember it saying ‘I love you, Pop.’”
Gasol thanked the late Kobe Bryant, his teammate on two Los Angeles Lakers NBA championship teams, who died in a 2020 helicopter crash along with his daughter, Gigi.
“I wouldn’t be here without you, brother,” Gasol said. “I wish more than anything that you and Gigi were here today with us. I miss you and love you.”
Like Gasol, Parker was won over by the 1992 Summer Olympics, when the Hall of Famer-laden Americans drubbed the French national by 50 points. But when it came time to play in the European championships, Gasol and Spain were often in the way.
“Sometimes I wish Pau Gasol was not born,” Parker quipped.