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Mack Calvin Makes His Pitch for Hall of Fame

Former Clippers interim head coach Mack Calvin was one of the greatest players in ABA history and he believes his efforts should be recognized by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Photo Courtesy of Mack Calvin

Editor's note: Today we are running a guest piece from Brian Rzeppa.  Mr. Rzeppa did some extensive research and excellent reporting to compile this story about former ABA great and Clippers head coach Mack Calvin.  Enjoy the history lesson. --Lucas Hann

On December 14th, 2015, the NBA came to the decision to change some of the processes that went into selecting members for the Naismith Hall of Fame.

The one that stood out the most was that they changed the five-year wait for eligibility to four years, which will make players like Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming all eligible to be elected this year.

The excitement of a loaded class such as this one had many fans salivating, but it also allowed a few other changes to go unnoticed. Chief among them was the removal of the ABA-specific committee, which could wind up hurting ABA stars like Mack Calvin.

Calvin, a member of the All-Time ABA Team (and a top ten vote-getter, at that), was against all odds throughout the course of his career but he wound up becoming a difference maker in one of the more exciting leagues that the basketball world has ever seen.

Like many kids, Calvin was first introduced to the game when he was nine or ten years old. As he tells Clips Nation, it was his way of avoiding some of the vices that had taken over the lives of his peers in South Central Los Angeles.

"I started playing at parks and recreation in South Central. We were poor, so it was just basketball that I had to keep me busy and keep me out of trouble. I would play all day and just try to emulate my game after Jerry West and Dave Bing, and that's how I made pull-up jump shots a part of my game," Calvin said.

His family eventually made it out of the projects, moving to Long Beach where he would go on to attend Long Beach Polytechnic High School, a school that has produced stars athletes such as Tony Gwynn, DeSean Jackson and Billy Jean King.

He made the varsity team his junior year, coming off of the bench for a team that only lost one game and he followed that up by starting his senior year and going undefeated. This level of success had schools constantly knocking on his door, but unfortunately Calvin would be unable to take any of them up on their offers.

"When we went undefeated my senior year I had over 100 scholarship offers, but unfortunately I was reading at a seventh grade level and barely graduated. I had a 1.9 GPA out of high school and if it wasn't for my arts and crafts teacher changing my grade from a D to a C, I wouldn't have graduated from high school. I had a father who was an alcoholic who didn't get past the fourth grade and my mom graduated from high school, but I didn't really have anyone to push me to commit to education."

With his academic struggles in mind, Calvin chose to stay close to home and attend Long Beach City College. The new environment wasn't any easier on him, which led to him nearly being removed from the team. His career would have been over before it started, but a talk with his coach changed the rest of his life.

"I missed some of my classes in my first few weeks and my coach found out. He was ready to kick me off the team, so he called me into his office and asked why I wasn't going to class. I started crying and told him that it was because I wasn't able to read. That moment changed my life, because after that I got some tutors and got put into some classes that would help me out and my career just blossomed from there. By the time I graduated I had made the Dean's List and had a 3.5 GPA."

He was excelling on the court by this point, too. By the end of his time with LBCC, Calvin had racked up over 60 scholarship offers. Ultimately, he was forced to make the decision between USC and a John Wooden-led UCLA team that was coming off of their first of what wound wind up being seven consecutive championships.

"Apparently, I was the first player that Coach Wooden came out to the house to recruit because he usually sent his assistants. In the end, I chose USC and it wasn't really all that difficult for me."

Despite the strong team that the Bruins boasted, Calvin preferred the academics that USC brought to the table.

"It was an easy choice. I had the grades and I had taken all my core classes to make the transition pretty seamlessly. USC had a coach, Bob Boyd, who really liked me and really liked my play. I could have gone to a multitude of different schools, but the Lord had his angels looking over me and I chose USC."

He had a great first year with USC, finishing third on the team in scoring and helped guide USC to an 18-win season, their highest mark in five years. The following year was a bit down from a team level, but Calvin kept up his consistent scoring efforts.

As the season wound down, the team didn't have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament, but they knew that they finished the year with back-to-back games against undefeated UCLA and they wanted to go out strong.

"In the Friday game, we went to double overtime and lost. The next night we were scheduled to play them at their place and at that time they won 58 consecutive games at home. I've always been a confident person, but I didn't have any positive thoughts that we were going to beat them. The game we lost, we went back to the hotel and at the post game dinner our coach came in and was all excited and told us that we would beat them tomorrow. Here they had the best player in college basketball ever and had this long win streak, so I thought coach was drunk."

"When we went undefeated my senior year I had over 100 scholarship offers, but unfortunately I was reading at a seventh grade level and barely graduated."

Despite his reservations regarding the upcoming game, Calvin knew that Coach Boyd had a game plan that could work.

"He had a plan, we had worked all year in practice on a stall game with a four corners offense and so that's what we did. They didn't have a shot clock in those days, but soon after our game they installed a clock. Our plan was to draw Alcindor away from the basket and when we did that, I would drive to the hoop or we'd move the ball for an open shot."

He continued, "As the game wound down, Ernie Powell had the ball in his hands with about 10 seconds to go. He pulled up from the right side and hit it, which won the game for us, which made the crowd go silent. That team ended up winning three straight championships, so it was a great win for us."

With one of the biggest upsets in history to close out his career, Calvin set his sights on playing professionally. After being passed over for more than 200 players combined for both leagues, Calvin had been selected in the 14th round by the Los Angeles Lakers and the seventh round by the Los Angeles Stars of the ABA.

"The Lakers offered me a tryout and a signed Jerry West T-shirt and I was offered a $1,500 bonus from the Stars, so it was a very easy choice for me. What made it easier was that the Stars had a couple of former USC guys, Bill Sharman and Jim Hardy, involved with their team so they were really willing to give me a chance."

Though the Stars had offered a better package than the Lakers, his chances of making the team were still very bleak. The team had a few point guards already on the roster, each of them with guaranteed contracts.

"After practices, I wouldn't stick around because I didn't want them to be able to cut me. I had played well, but I still thought I was going to be cut. On the last day of cuts, I had left before they announced who made the cuts and the trainer had to call me to bring my bags back and he let me know that I made the team."

Bill Sharman, a Hall of Fame coach and player, had his confidence in Calvin pay off almost immediately for the team.

"In my first game on the road, I didn't even get in the game. In the second game, however, we were playing in Carolina and with about three or four minutes left in the quarter, I came in and scored about 12 or 13 points. From there my career just took off and we won 23 of the last 27 games to make the playoffs. In the playoffs, I jumped my scoring average up to almost 25 points per game."

Playing under a coach like Sharman was just what Calvin needed and that year ended up having a big impact on the remainder of his career.

"Coach Sharman really helped developed my outside shooting and free throws. He helped me in my overall game, too. He was a former baseball player that was big into scouting, so he had me take notes on my opponents and because of that I became a student of the game."

Despite his and the team's success in his rookie year, Calvin was shipped off to the Miami Floridians, a team that was in disarray and constantly on the verge of folding.

"It was tough, it was very frustrating. My career was bright, but the Stars moved to Utah. They had a general manager named Vince Boryla who was an old-school guy and he thought there was going to be a merger in a year or two. He didn't think that I would survive against bigger guards, so they traded me to Miami for a big guard named Donnie Freeman."

He wasn't initially thrilled with the trade, but it wound up being a blessing for his career. With the Floridians, he was able to take the reigns of the offense and play the wide-open style that suited him best. He ended the season scoring over 27 points per game and made his first of seven All-Star appearances.

"After practices, I wouldn't stick around because I didn't want them to be able to cut me. I had played well, but I still thought I was going to be cut."

"My career really just took off and although we didn't have a great team, I became a star. I think Utah ended up winning the championship, so that was the only disappointing thing for me about the move."

He had performed well, but after another All-Star season for Calvin the team folded due to low attendance numbers. He was going to be on the move once again, either to the NBA with Portland who had expressed interest in him, or to Carolina in the dispersal draft. He chose Carolina, and it was yet another opportunity to shine and he would be doing so under the guidance of a coach who would eventually become one of the game's best.

"I knew of Larry Brown and I think that was his first pro coaching experience. He was a great coach and I didn't score as many points as I did in Florida, but I became a better all-around player. He was a teacher and he came from a system in North Carolina where he learned under a great coach in Dean Smith and we played a style of basketball similar to what Golden State and San Antonio are doing these days."

He went on, "He was a great student of the game and a great teacher. He always got great players and great guards and I was the first of the great guards that he had, before he had the Iverson's and the Reggie Miller's of the world. He helped make me a better point guard."

Behind the play of Calvin, who made the All-ABA team, and Billy Cunningham, who had been acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers, Carolina jumped all the way to 57 wins after having just 35 the year before.

"We won a ton of games and just had a terrific team. The fans supported us and we made the playoffs, which was great after the lack of postseason play that I had with the Floridians the years before."

They tried to follow it up the next season, but the Cougars couldn't maintain the level of play that they once had. They dropped to 47 wins and with fan support decreasing the team was sold to an ownership group in St. Louis.

Once again, Calvin was put into the dispersal draft. This time would be a bit different, however, as Larry Brown, assistant coach Doug Moe and general manager Carl Scheer all headed to Denver with him.

"Going to Denver was a great year, I was first-team All-Pro and we won 65 games again and I was Basketball Weekly Player of the Year. We went to the conference finals, but unfortunately we came up short again and lost to the Pacers."

Calvin's teams, with Brown at the helm, had a bit of trouble getting over the hump in the playoffs after wildly successful regular seasons.

"A lot of it stemmed from making a lot of adjustments during the playoffs. We didn't play the same way in the playoffs as we did during the regular season. For the life of me, I could never understand that. That was basically Larry's undoing and it was frustrating during that time, because we would play a certain way and Larry just wanted to change. We won 64 or 65 games then just completely changed the way we played once we got to the playoffs. You can't adjust to a system in two or three weeks, it takes time for those things to work out."

Although they had come up short once again, Calvin was looking forward to getting right back at it in Denver the next year. To his surprise, the team shipped him off to Virginia in a move that blindsided the standout guard.

"I was tremendously distraught and hurt by that. I built a home in Denver and we had a successful season so I was excited to get going for the next year but then I ended up on the worst team in the league. Larry was always trading players, though. As I got older, however, I looked at it from a business standpoint and to trade me and a few other players for David Thompson, a Hall of Famer, it was a great move for them."

Early on, it was clear that this Virginia team wasn't going to be the same environment that he had in Denver or Carolina before that. He was injured early on during the season, but the team pushed him to work as an assistant, and eventually head coach, as he recovered.

"I didn't want to do it because I didn't get paid. We got paid on the first and fifteenth and right before those days it was tough for them to get us the money. They would give me checks and I would go to the bank and they would bounce. We went to Denver for a two-game series and a certain hotel would say that they wouldn't put us up because they wouldn't take our credit card, so the Nuggets had to pay our hotel bill. The team was trying to get new ownership, but it became a situation where my lawyer said that we had to protect my interests."

With his quadriceps still healing, the team pressured him into returning too soon, a decision which would hamper the rest of his career.

"I never recovered from that injury. The people in Virginia really came down on me and thought that I should be back playing sooner. I had missed 40 or 45 games, but I ended up rushing back and played much earlier than I should have. I should have had an operation on it, but it was 1976 and the technology wasn't nearly as good. Wilt Chamberlain had a similar injury and was out for a year and a half, while I just missed a few months."

The team folded following this nightmare season and within months the NBA/ABA merger was finally happening. He had the opportunity to take the year off and recover while being paid by the ABA, but he instead decided to take a pay cut and head to the Lakers, the team that had drafted him seven years prior.

"It was a special moment in my career to join the Lakers; my parents were there and I was finally in the NBA. I played for the Stars and that was great, but to play for the Lakers, a team I grew up watching and listening to and being coached by my idol Jerry West was unbelievable. I probably wouldn't have signed with them if anyone else were coaching."

This opportunity was short-lived, however, as the Lakers traded Calvin to the San Antonio Spurs after just a few months. With the Spurs, Calvin was reunited with his former assistant coach Doug Moe.

It was yet another brief stint and after just 35 games with the team he was moved back to Denver where Larry Brown was still coaching.

"The environment and the fan support was still great when I joined them in the NBA. We sold out all of the games including playoffs and the atmosphere was just incredible. We had David Thompson and had brought in Dan Issel, so we were one of the top teams in the NBA, too."

Still not fully recovered from the injury that had hobbled him three years before, Calvin was relegated to a bench role with the Nuggets. He had spent over a year with the team and had pitched in as a spark off of the bench, but he wound up in Larry Brown's doghouse and was benched for the entirety of the 1978-1979 season.

"That year I had a problem with Larry Brown. He had some issues with me and still to this day I don't really know or care what the problems were. I sat out that year even though I had a guaranteed contract and Tom Nissalke, who was the head coach of the Jazz, called and said he needed me. I was a shell of myself, but I was still in the league. After that year, he was fired and they didn't retain me."

He went to Cleveland for one final season before he decided to call it a career at the age of 33. He had the opportunity to continue coaching, but he was ready for a break from basketball.

"When I retired, I went back to Denver and worked for Bill Daniels, the former owner of the Utah Stars. He was big in the cable television business, so I worked for him for several years. After my father died in 1986, I decided that I wanted to go into coaching. My first high school team went 34-1, then I left and coached for a year with the University of Virginia."

Though he had just begun coaching a few years prior, it wasn't long before the NBA came calling.

"Del Harris called me to be an assistant coach of the Bucks and I was there for five years. When Harris was fired, Elgin Baylor called me to become his number one assistant coach with the Clippers. I was there for two years with them and I became the interim head coach for two games."

He has moved on from coaching and now finds himself giving back to different communities in a variety of ways.

"I moved to New Orleans in 2009 to help the city build some affordable housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Since then I've moved to California and I'm a motivational speaker for the Los Angeles School District and for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes."

"I'm from a poor family and to even be mentioned in the Hall of Fame talk after so many teams passed over me for other guys, it would be a wonderful story. If I'm put on that platform of being in the Hall of Fame, kids can look and say, 'Why not me?"

As the years go by, Calvin has seen many of his former teammates and opponents from the ABA get inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and he hopes that he, too, we'll soon be getting the call.

"I'm really trying to talk to people and get into the Hall of Fame this year. I'm from a poor family and to even be mentioned in the Hall of Fame talk after so many teams passed over me for other guys, it would be a wonderful story. If I'm put on that platform of being in the Hall of Fame, kids can look and say, 'Why not me? I don't want to be elected for my personal reasons; I just think it can really inspire others."

From graduating high school with a seventh grade reading level to finishing college on the Dean's List, and going from having over 200 players selected ahead of him in the draft to being named to the All-Time ABA team, Mack Calvin has managed to fight the odds at all times throughout his career. With the removal of the ABA committee on the Naismith Hall of Fame selection board, this is just one more set of odds that he'll have to overcome.