Sections Travel and Tourism

Ambitious Renovation Project Will Reshape the Basketball Hall of Fame

‘Time to Step Forward’

An architect’s rendering of the renovated lobby area at the Hall

An architect’s rendering of the renovated lobby area at the Hall, complete with lockers bearing the names of some of the game’s greats.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will soon commence work on an ambitious, $15 million renovation and expansion that will dramatically change the look and feel of the shrine. While the project represents the future, it also speaks loudly to just how far the Hall has come since the dark days — and years — earlier this century.

John Doleva calls it a “spaceship.”

That’s what he and others at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame have come to call the individual lights that sit atop the dome that defines the shrine on West Columbus Avenue and change color with the seasons and the occasions.

That’s because they look like one, at least that ’50s sci-fi-movie take on what a spaceship looks like, a flat, roundish base with a circular bubble on top. There are 860 of these lights affixed to the dome, and maybe a quarter of them are in a condition approximating that of the one that Doleva has in his office — cracked, with the seals damaged, allowing water to get in and cause serious trouble.

This is the same ‘spaceship’ he takes with him when he talks to gatherings large and small about the planned $15 million to $16 million renovation of the hoop Hall. That’s because these fixtures will be removed and replaced with projection lighting that is, well, light years ahead of the old bulbs in terms of what can be done with the surface of the giant sphere.

“You can do incredible things with projection lighting,” said Doleva. “It will give us so much variability it terms of bringing the building alive, and the maintenance is so much easier.”

But the lights are really just a small, though highly visible, part of the ambitious undertaking at the Hall, noted Doleva, its president for nearly two decades now. Indeed, he said the current facility, opened in 2003, was designed and built just before digital technology was about to explode and change forever the way information is presented and stories, like those of the hall’s inductees and of the history of the game itself, are told.

John Doleva

John Doleva holds up one of the ‘spaceships’ that are soon to be history at the Hall.

“We have a lot of printed word here — exhibits that don’t necessarily interact and entertain, especially when you’re talking to a 12- or a 14- or a 17-year old,” he explained. “With the advent of all the digital content that’s out there now, we can bring Hall of Famers alive, and that’s what we intend to do; instead of a plaque on a wall and two and a half paragraphs of information, we’re going to bring James Naismith alive; we’re going to bring Bob Cousy alive.”

The renovation project will take part in two stages, with the dome lighting, a main lobby area overhaul, and significant renovation of the Hall’s theater comprising stage one. Work on it will start next month (the museum will remain open during construction), and it will all be finished in June, a few important months before MGM Springfield opens its doors in September 2018.

Phase two involves a substantial overhaul of the museum itself, what’s under the dome, said Doleva, noting that state-of-the-art, digitized presentations are currently being blueprinted. Phase two is slated to begin in January 2020, to be finished six months later, with the museum obviously closed for those six months.

And while this project and the campaign that will fund it — called “A Time to Step Forward” — represent the future of the Hall, they also embody just how far it has come in the years since the current building was put on the proverbial drawing board roughly two decades ago.

Indeed, the existing facility was built without a considerable amount of support from what Doleva collectively calls the “basketball community,” and it was opened with a large amount of debt that left the Hall in precarious financial condition for a number of years.

It has ridden out that storm, if you will, and has regrouped on many levels. The Hall has forged much stronger relationships with that basketball community and its many subcomponents, including inductees themselves (as we’ll see), and, as a result, the capital campaign has far exceeded initial expectations. Because of this, goals have been recalibrated.

“The initial goal of the campaign, $20 million, has been exceeded, and it now stands at $26 million,” said Doleva, adding that more than 90% of this total comes from the basketball community. A new goal of $30 million has been established, he went on, to not only fund the renovations to the galleries and visitor area, but also adequately fund an endowment.

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Hall’s renovation project, and also at the forces that have made it — and a much more secure future for this Springfield landmark — possible.

Net Gains

There are a great deal of numbers associated with the Hall’s renovation project, its capital campaign, and its comeback from those dark years after the new shrine was opened 14 years ago.

And while all of them are significant, from the number of lights to be taken out to the projections on increased visitation — from the improvements, MGM’s opening, and other factors — maybe the place to start is with the number 5.

That’s how many of the Hall’s previous inductees turned out for the enshrinement ceremonies in 2000. (Actually, eight committed to come, and three of them backed out). And in many respects, Hall officials were lucky the number was that high.

That’s because the Hall didn’t pay to fly any of those inductees in, didn’t pay for their hotel rooms, and didn’t pay for anything, really, except their admission to the show — largely because it couldn’t afford to do so.

“We quickly concluded that, if we don’t have Hall of Famers on our side, if they’re not our ambassadors across the country and around the world, then we really don’t have a Hall of Fame,” said Doleva, adding that the Hall now pays such expenses, and the results of such a sea change have been dramatic.

Fast-forward to this past September, and there were 65 former inductees in attendance, a number that certainly helps explain the large number of autograph collectors camping out in front of the downtown Springfield hotels.

These Hall of Famers are now truly ambassadors, said Scott Zuffelato, vice president of Philanthropy for the Hall, adding that they regularly make appearances at Hall-produced events such as fund-raising golf tournaments and basketball events.

“They’ve become our foot soldiers,” he explained. “And this stronger relationship with the Hall of Famers has led us to stronger relationships with others in basketball as well, such as college coaches who take part in our events, and the NBA as well.”

And these improved, much stronger relations, resulting in part from getting coaches and officials in pro and college basketball more engaged in the Hall at many levels, has helped the institution secure a higher placed within the game, Doleva told BusinessWest.

Scott Zuffelato says the Hall has strengthened relationships

Scott Zuffelato says the Hall has strengthened relationships with many constituencies within the basketball community, including the Hall of Famers themselves, which is reflected in giving for the current capital campaign.

“We took the organization from a museum in Springfield where the game was invented,” he said, “to a global basketball brand with the mothership located in Springfield.”

This transformation, if you will, has certainly played a huge role in the enormous — and ongoing — success of the Hall’s capital campaign, which was launched more than two and a half years ago. Those who originally met to plan it did so with the initial mission of retiring lingering debt from construction of the new Hall at the start of this century — the roughly $2 million left from an original figure that approached $12 million.

But soon, the vision — and the campaign — took on new meaning.

“It soon became clear that we had a grander plan — and that was to redo the museum and bring it into the 21st century to again be the world’s finest sports museum,” said Doleva, adding that the campaign will raise far more than is needed for the planned renovations, which will enable the Hall to undertake those projects in a manner that couldn’t have been imagined back in 2000: by paying cash.

“The original goal was $21 million, and we saw that as a big challenge based on where we had been with the 2000 campaign,” he went on. “But very quickly, probably within 14 or 15 months, we hit $21 million. And like any good organization, with so many asks that were out there and so many opportunities that hadn’t been harvested, we decided to raise it to $30 million.”

As noted, the basketball community has responded to the Hall’s bid to step forward in a big way. The donor list is replete with the names of players, coaches, executives, and contributors to the game in various ways.

Zuffelato credited Jerry Colangelo, the Hall’s chairman, former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and currently a special adviser to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, with inspiring many within the basketball community to give to the campaign.

Imagination on Display

What those traveling to the renovated Hall will encounter is a more modern, more visitor-friendly facility and museum that tells stories on a number of levels — both literally and figuratively.

Indeed, the renovated ground-floor lobby, the entry point for visitors, will feature a new, far less imposing ticket area (Doleva has a name for that, too — the ‘tugboat’ — and, more importantly, a number of new displays and attractions.

Overall, the lobby work, a significant portion of phase one, isn’t an expansion in the technical sense, said Doleva. Rather, it is a concerted effort to capture and make much better use of existing space in the lobby area.

“That concourse could really be any retail mall in America — when you walk into it, you don’t know that you’re in the Basketball Hall of Fame; you wouldn’t know until you look through the glass,” he said, adding that the renovations will make it clear to visitors just where they are. “This will be a very high-energy area.”

It will be dominated, he went on, by lockers bearing the names of some of the game’s greats, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Grant Hill, Jerry West, and others, who have donated to the capital campaign. These lockers — there are 16 planned, with the ability to expand to 24 — will highlight not only achievements on the court, but the work done by these players within their community.

Meanwhile, a renovated theater in the lobby area, complete with digital technology, surround sound, and an actual stage, will play a more prominent role in the typical Hall visit — and in the Hall’s operations in general.

“Many people don’t know there’s a theater there,” he said. One reason for this, he noted, is that the Hall has never had what he and others in this business call a “signature film” to show to visitors upon their arrival. But it will have one soon, and Doleva said this work in progress will set the emotional tone for one’s visit.

As for the museum, it will see all its galleries renovated and modernized. Doleva explained that such work is necessary not only to keep pace with other museums and sports halls, but to set a new, higher bar.

“We want to present Bob Cousy in a way that will enable people in their teens or 20s to know who he was, and know who Oscar Robertson was, or Kareem,” he explained. “We want to make sure we celebrate all the Hall of Famers, whether they played in recent times or way back; we want to make sure they get their fair share of digital education to the fans.”

Another key addition to the Hall’s lineup, if you will, is the 1891 Gallery, so named because that’s the year James Naismith invented the game.

The gallery will provide area companies that donate specified amounts to the campaign with an opportunity to gain visibility in that space, a company statement that links Naismith’s core values to their company’s values, and a host of other benefits.

Many area businesses have already signed on, including MassMutual, Balise Auto Group, Excel Dryer, Florence Savings Bank, the Chicopee Savings Foundation, and the Davis Foundation.

These renovation project, coupled with MGM’s opening and other forms of momentum at the Hall and across Springfield, are inspiring Hall officials to set some ambitious goals for visitorship — for 2018, and especially for 2020 and beyond.

“I would expect a 20% to 25% increase in attendance,” said Doleva, adding that MGM should have a huge influence on the facility simply by introducing it to people who may not have known it was there.

Court of Opinion

The name affixed to the capital campaign — “It’s Time to Step Forward” is simple, yet has meaning on a number of levels.

On one of them, it speaks to potential donors, inviting them to step forward and play a role in modernizing a Springfield landmark and helping it secure a solid future in a way it never really has.

On another, that name speaks directly to what the Hall is doing — stepping forward — in terms of everything from building a facility truly worthy of the phrase ‘state of the art’ to forging stronger, long-lasting relationships with the basketball community.

These are, indeed, big steps forward, and, to borrow a phrase from the game itself, they comprise a winning formula for years and decades to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]