At dinner Thursday night in Springfield, Mass., some of Lefty Driesell’s former players and assistants sat around a table trying to figure out why it took so long for the now-86-year old coach to be selected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“The conclusion we came to was that he couldn’t hold his speech to five minutes,” former Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen joked Friday, a few hours before Driesell and 12 others gathered at the city’s Symphony Hall for their induction into the game’s greatest shrine.
Speaking without the teleprompter most of the other honorees used, Driesell went a little longer — nearly 15 minutes — in talking about an achievement he waited 15 years since his retirement and three previous unsuccessful attempts to achieve.
Driesell was joined for the ceremony by his wife of 66 years, Joyce, their four children (including son, Chuck, who played for his father at Maryland) and grandchildren, as well as nearly 20 players from the four different schools where he coached in his career.
In a rambling, rollicking speech that had those in attendance roaring in laughter, Driesell opened by saying, “I’m so happy to be here. This is probably one of the happiest days of my wife — my life and my wife, whatever.”
Then came the first self-deprecating joke.
“Is there anybody else in here 86 years old? Raise your hand, will ya?” Driesell said during his speech, broadcast by NBA TV. “So listen, if I l screw up,wait ’till you get to 86.”
A couple of times Driesell, who won 786 career games, looked up at the monitor and asked, “Is my time over yet? You know, I’ve been practicing this for three days and they said, ‘Five minutes.’ So I got two minutes left or something.’ "
The jokes kept coming.
Talking about legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who along with fellow Hall of Famers John Thompson Jr. and George Raveling presented Driesell, the longtime Maryland coach said, “He graduated from West Point, and at West Point, you lead guys and if they don’t listen to you, they get killed.”
Of Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, Driesell said, “I used to be a hero around D.C. ’till he came. He took little old Georgetown, who we used to beat easy and I quit playing him. … He has done more for basketball than anyone in the country. He made Georgetown. Most of y'all never heard of Georgetown until he got there.”
Calling Raveling his “main man” as his first assistant at Maryland — the first African-American coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference — Driesell said, “I know he’s been pushing me for this for about 20 years. I heard them say Lefty got credit for [starting] Midnight Madness. It was me and George. In fact it was probably George’s idea because I’m not smart enough to do stuff like that.”
Driesell recalled how he got interested in basketball as a 9-year-old in Norfolk, Va., becoming the team manager for Granby High where he would later star and eventually coach, giving up a job at Ford Motor Company for a junior varsity coaching job that paid half of what he was making.
“I came home and told Joyce, ‘I think I’m going to take that Granby coaching job,’ ” Driesell said. “ ‘I always wanted to coach.’ She said, ‘What does it pay?’ I said, '$3,200.’ She said, ‘And you’re making $6,200 at the Ford Motor plant and you'’ll take that job?’ I say, ‘I love coaching. I’ll work in the summertime selling encyclopedias to make some money.’ So that’s what I did.”
Driesell talked about how he then went to Newport News High, where the team won 57 straight games, which is still a state record. Pointing to Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning in the audience, “He won 52 straight and Moses [Malone] won 54. But we won 57 straight.”
Speaking of Malone, who died in 2015, Driesell said he wished he and legendary coach Red Auerbach could have been there to present him as well. Driesell had signed Malone at Maryland before the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association offered him a $1 million contract to jump straight from high school.
“I loved Moses and if he had played for me, I would have been up here a long time ago,” Driesell said.
Recalling how he promised to turn Maryland into “the UCLA of the East” shortly after arriving in College Park in 1969, Driesell joked, “I was kind of drunk or something when I said it. But we were pretty good and we wound up pretty good. We had a lot of great players.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who along with Hall of Famer Gary Williams and athletic director Damon Evans represented Maryland at the festivities, recalled his first encounter with Driesell as Turgeon was starting his career at Jacksonville State.
At the time, Driesell was finishing his 41-year coaching career at Georgia State.
“They beat us really bad, [by 33 points] at their place,” Turgeon recalled. “I just remember how intense he was. He wasn’t very friendly when I was a coach at Jacksonville State. He became much friendlier after I left Jacksonville State.”
The two men eventually became close when Turgeon was hired to follow Williams in College Park in 2011. With Turgeon’s urging, Maryland honored Driesell with a banner at Xfinity Center two years ago.
“When I got the Maryland job, he was a big supporter,” Turgeon said. “He’s been really helpful. It’s kind of been a mission of mine to do things for Lefty at Maryland to bring his name back and of course to hopefully get into the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has happened. I couldn’t be more happy.”
Though many of Driesell’s longtime supporters had given up hope of a Hall of Fame selection, Greg Manning was not among them. The former Maryland point guard, who would become Driesell’s boss as athletic director at Georgia State, was happy the honor didn’t come posthumously.
“I knew it was going to come,” Manning said Thursday. “I wanted it to be like now, where he was here and he was able to enjoy it and his family could enjoy it. … Obviously it took a little longer than anybody anticipated, but it’s well deserved.”
Perhaps the biggest laugh Driesell received — a line that might rank among the greatest ever uttered by a Hall of Fame inductee — came when he couldn’t remember Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who told Driesell that he had more guests than any of the other 12 honored.
“I tell ya, the older you get, all you try to do is remember names and go to the bathroom,” Driesell said. “You’ll find out.”