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Commentary: Halls of Fame

Mention "the hall of fame," and the average fan might think of Cooperstown or Canton. But shrines to our sports legends can be found from coast to coast, including right here in Kansas City. As commentator Victor Wishna contends in this month’s edition of “A Fan’s Notes,” that's a good thing.

Ah, that familiar squeak is back. Tonight, for the first time since last spring’s NCAA Tournament, college basketball returns to the Sprint Center. Four teams, including the Missouri Tigers, will face off in the Hall of Fame Classic. That’s the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame; last night, a special ceremony here welcomed the newest class: six players and three coaches who have left their mark on the game’s “magnificent history.”

Which got me thinking… Yes, about basketball, but also…“the Hall of Fame.”

The idea of enshrining living (and once-living) legends is as old as the crumbling, ancient Greek busts of the first Olympic champions. But the modern version is a mainly American phenomenon. According to Hall of Fame Museums: A Reference Guide, there are some 3,000 halls, walls, and walks of fame worldwide, but more than 90 percent of them are here in the U.S. I guess it’s not surprising that a society obsessed with fame would build so many monuments to it.

Of course, there’s the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, as well as the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. There are dozens of other sports shrines, from Florida’s Waterski Hall of Fame to Colorado’s Pro Rodeo Hall to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Wisconsin. Heck, my own late great-uncle is enshrined in the Bowling Proprietors Association Hall of Fame in Arlington, Texas, and I couldn’t be prouder.

And sports is only the beginning. Art, television, film, theatre—nearly thirty halls of fame just for music, from hip-hop to polka to rockabilly. Name any field of endeavor and there’s likely a sacred shrine. Right here in Kansas City, we also have the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and the National Agriculture Center and Hall of Fame. And there are way too many others to list.

Okay, I have to list a few: The Cowboy Hall of Fame. The Pinball Hall of Fame. The National Mining Hall of Fame. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. The Idaho Potato Hall of Fame. You’d think there’d be a Hall of Fame just for, you know, the best Halls of Fame. Amiright?

Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh, yes. Sports.

I’ll go ahead and take the stand that the Hall of Fame is one healthy feature of our oversaturated sports-celebrity culture. Because although extraordinary achievement is the minimum requirement, sports halls of fame aren’t just about statistics. They’re also supposed to be about integrity, sportsmanship, and character. And, like so much else in sports, it connects the past to the future.

The oldest, newest player to join the Collegiate Basketball Hall is 79-year-old Terry Dischinger, All-American at Purdue, Olympic Gold Medalist, NBA Rookie of the Year, and recently retired orthodontist. He’ll be in the stands tonight, as some teenager takes a first shot at immortality.

Anyone can win a championship, but it takes something more to earn the secular sainthood conferred by entry into a hall of fame. Most won’t even consider a candidate until years into retirement. It’s the antithesis of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately; it’s a measure, and mandate, of legacy.

And it’s imperfect. Any hall of fame may still have its share of scoundrels, racists, and cheats. These are humans, elected by humans…and we know how that goes. But the appeal is in the ideal: that our sports legends shouldn’t just be unbeatable, but unimpeachable.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.

Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.