By Brian Mahoney
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. _ After Dikembe Mutombo wagged that index finger a few more times and Dick Bavetta hugged nearly everyone in sight, Jo Jo White slowly made his way to the podium.
The former Boston Celtics star, once so indefatigable that he played 60 minutes in an NBA Finals game, is no longer a speedster after surgery to remove a brain tumour. He received a few assists just to make the short walk to the microphone inside the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he made it clear just how much he loved the game.
“I thank the Lord every day,” White said, “and I’m still here.”
Inside the Hall, he will be forever.
The 2015 class will be enshrined Friday, highlighted by greats in coaching (John Calipari), officiating (Bavetta), and of course, playing.
Mutombo and White are in that category, along with Spencer Haywood and women’s star Lisa Leslie. Tom Heinsohn is being inducted as a coach after already being enshrined as a player, and will be joined by former coaches George Raveling and Australia’s Lindsay Gaze, plus ABA star Louis Dampier and early African-American player John Isaacs.
For some, the trip to Springfield for Thursday’s press conference was a reminder of their early days. Calipari recalled making $63,000 a year in the late 1980s as coach at the nearby University of Massachusetts and nearly got choked up talking about Marcus Camby, the superstar on his first Final Four team long before he started coaching them regularly at Kentucky.
Bavetta thought back to his days calling games in the Eastern League before never missing an assignment during 39 years as an NBA referee.
For Mutombo, it was a chance to think about how far he’d come, from Africa to Georgetown to 18 seasons in the NBA, where he followed many of his blocked shots by wagging his index finger.
Mutombo said former Commissioner David Stern long pleaded with him to stop and eventually compromised by telling Mutombo to wave the finger toward the crowd instead of the player he just rejected. Now working for the league as a global ambassador _ Stern is one of his presenters Friday in the ceremony at Symphony Hall _ Mutombo joked that he took the job to recover some of the money he lost in fines over the years.
He said Blake Griffin is the player now he wished would try to dunk on him, but he’ll settle for blocking anyone in his path, as some kids in China recently learned.
“It was a pick-up, a clinic, and I killed all of them,” Mutombo said. “No kids could score against me.”
Mutombo might miss the work but Bavetta is happy to be staying home after calling 2,635 consecutive NBA regular-season games before retiring in 2014 at 74.
“I used to put the Weather Channel on, I’d see the blizzards in Minnesota and Detroit and Cleveland and Boston, and not worry about, ‘How am I going to get there?”’ Bavetta said. “So it was a revelation this year, because the travel was a killer.”
The inductees seemed happiest for White, who endured a lengthy wait and serious health problems before finally getting his call.
Haywood began his remarks with a nod to his teammate on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal he said was no sure thing after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld declined to play.
“We shook up the world in 1968,” Haywood, who led the Americans in scoring, said to White.
Calipari later worked with White, 68, at Kansas, where White had been an All-American before averaging 17.2 points in 12 NBA seasons. Heinsohn was his coach when the Celtics won titles in 1974 and ’76.
“I’ve been a big champion of his,” Heinsohn said. “He should’ve been here a long time ago.”
White was the MVP of the 1976 finals, when he played 60 of a possible 63 minutes of a triple-overtime game against Phoenix. He always wanted to be on the court, so much so that Heinsohn said White hated him the first time he came to Boston because Heinsohn didn’t play him.
“I absolutely adored playing this game,” White said.
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: