Springfield, MA – I walked onto the hardwood court, grabbed a foot jump shot.
Nothing but net.
I turned around and said, "I should quit now, because it won't get any better than that." Thankfully, I didn't, because I would have missed one of the greatest experiences of my life.
You see, I'm a media guy - a sportswriter, editor, free-lance writer and basketball fan -- who had the unique opportunity to join the NBA Development League Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp at the Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend. That's right. Mid-August. Springfield, Mass. The induction of Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin, Artis Gilmore and others at the birthplace of this great sport, where in 1891 James A. Naismith nailed a peach basket to the wall at the local YMCA.
Some 120 years later, here I am, breaking bread with Thompson, the former North Carolina State superstar; hanging at the pre-enshrinement cocktail reception with the legendary Dr. J: and offering my personal congratulations to the still red-eyed Rodman, who helped the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen posse win three of their six championship rings for the Chicago Bulls.
I was a guest of QuintEvents, the NBA D-League and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for this first-ever experience, an unprecedented, fully-loaded opportunity to go up close and personal with all the glitterati on hand for Hall of Fame weekend. And there was the real thing -- basketball drills, clinics and competition - under the tutelage of two of the greatest ever - Nancy Lieberman and Bill Walton. I was there to chronicle this grand initiative through which the NBA is working to bring its fans closer to the game.
But it is not one of those cool things that only media, sponsors and TV partners get to do. It is open to the public, a travel/experience package nonpareil, 40 hours of exhilaration (and exhaustion) for the sports/basketball devotee who fancies him(her)self a player, not just a spectator. (Packages through www.nba-events.com).
Admittedly, I had my doubts whether I'd be able to handle the rigors of playing basketball. Less than three years ago, at age 43, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which eroded some of my left femur (thighbone). A specialist permanently attached more than a foot of steel to support the bone, leaving me with a slight limp and virtually ending my active sports days.
I was assured going in that camp participants would come in all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, and from the get-go, that proved to be true.
The experience began with what was billed as a "welcome reception" for camp participants in a posh, private room at the Springfield Sheraton, my home for three days and two nights. I had expectations of standing around munching crackers and cheese, or perhaps a few hors d'oeuvres. Instead, we were treated to a lavish buffet dinner, full bar and talks by some of the legendary Hall of Famers who make it back to Springfield each year.
Sitting alone at a table, I was approached by a group of three men who asked if I would mind if they joined me. They turned out to be Thompson, one of the greatest college and pro players of the 1970s and 1980s, and brothers Derek and Nik Raivio, who play in the NBA D-League and would be assisting at the camp the following day.
Shortly thereafter, a familiar-looking woman joined the group at our table. It was Lieberman, the women's basketball pioneer who popularized the game for the fairer sex and had been inducted into the Hall of Fame with Thompson in 1996.
Participants began quickly filtering in, and I saw I would indeed be sharing the court with a wide variety of men and women: a pair of 15-year-old twin brothers, some ladies in their mid-20s, and a few guys older (and more athletic) than I.
At the end of the reception, during which the players posed for photos with each participant and autographed pictures, Lieberman told the group to "get a good night's rest, because we're going to put you through an NBA-type workout tomorrow."
What a prophet she turned out to be! After a delicious breakfast, we were off to the Mass Mutual Center, home of the NBA D-League's Springfield Armor, for a full day on the court. Many of the players looked similar in attire, as all participants were provided with an NBA D-League duffel bag, jersey, shorts, socks, towel, headband and wrist bands.
Following a brief warmup shooting session, we were indeed drilled like the pros. Conditioning drills, agility drills, ball handling drills - customized to everyone's skill level by instructors who operate at the highest levels of the sport. Lieberman and Thompson, aided by the Raivio brothers, worked with each and every camper on various aspects of the game: crossover dribbles, pump fakes, bounce passes, the works.
After more than two hours of practice, we were ready to play for real. The 22 campers were divided into two teams, and a spirited, 40-minute game ensued. My linescore: one rebound, one steal, two assists - not bad for a post-op, late- forties guy who is now proudest of his passing skills.
At the conclusion of the competition, we broke for lunch, which included a "chalk talk" by Walton, the legendary leader of the UCLA and Portland Trail Blazers championship teams. He regaled us with stories about his career, signed pictures and posed for photos with everyone. We then went back to the court for another hour and a half of play.
As great as the actual ballplaying was, the highlights of the weekend were still to come. We were VIP guests at the Hall of Fame Enshrinement Gala, attended by nearly 40 past and current members of the Hall of Fame.
I found myself in awe of the company I was keeping. To my right sat new inductee Arvydas Sabonis and his family, with legendary Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay at the next table. On my left was the family of the late Reece "Goose" Tatum of Harlem Globetrotter fame, a posthumous inductee this year. Everywhere I turned, there were legends - Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Calvin Murphy, Meadowlark Lemon. I got the chance to meet Walt Bellamy, Erving, Mullin, George Gervin, Teresa Edwards, and yes, even the inimitable Dennis Rodman.
Once the gala ended, it was time for a two-minute walk to Springfield Symphony Hall, where the induction ceremony would be held. The battery of cameras trained on the red carpet leading up the steps and the multitude of fans straining for a look at basketball royalty gave me an almost regal feeling as I ascended the stairs.
Inside the venue, most attendees were ushered to the balcony, but camp participants were accorded floor-level seating, near the Hall of Famers and their families. We watched up close as the 10 new inductees or their representatives delivered often-emotional speeches, touched by the reality that this was one of the biggest moments of their lives. Memorably, Rodman opened up about his controversial career and actually cried, a touching moment that no one expected.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, some of the campers stayed and chatted with the Hall of Famers, part of an exclusive gathering that had that once-in-a- lifetime feel. We then trekked back to the hotel, where we were astounded by the number of autograph-seekers camped behind a velvet rope in the lobby. One misguided soul, thinking I was someone of importance, even asked for my signature, prompting me to chuckle to myself, "Usually the only people interested in my autograph are the gas company, the water company and the mortgage company."
The incredible weekend concluded Saturday morning with a farewell breakfast, at which campers reminisced about the previous two days and bade farewell to their newfound friends. As we prepared to head back to Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia or wherever we had come from, we all agreed that we were true "insiders" at the 2011 Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend and that it would undoubtedly rank among the greatest experiences of our lives.
(Tim Jensen is a 29-year journalist whose work has appeared in The Hartford (CT) Courant, The Manchester Journal-Inquirer and the Enfield Press. He is the editor of Enfield Patch, part of the AOL national network of regional news outlets. Tim will be on hand to cover Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend in Springfield next year, but plans to skip the fantasy camp, where his passing skills will surely and sorely be missed.)