Upon receiving his orange Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinee jacket, Robert Hughes was supposed to take a seat on stage, instead he wore his coat and walked away.
For those familiar with Hughes and his personality, the gesture was perfectly symbolic. Hughes got his trophy jacket, and then got the hell outta there.
Turns out Hughes simply made a mistake. Give the guy a break. He’s 89 and hearing doesn’t come as easy as it once did.
He wound up on stage, and there was the former Dunbar boys’ basketball coach next to the 10 other members of the 2017 Basketball Hall of Fame class.
High above where he sat on stage in the Hall of Fame are the pictures of every member inducted. Hughes’ picture is just a few rows over from Shaquille O’Neal, Sheryl Swoopes, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming.
Hughes is among these giants of giants because he earned it. In the hardest of ways. And, by God, he’s not leaving before he tells the world what’s on his mind.
“I’m here,” Hughes told the audience in the Hall of Fame rotunda on Thursday afternoon, “but I keep thinking, ‘Why did it take so dang long?’ ”
The remark drew applause and laughter. It should have been met with an Aaaaa-men! What took so dang long?
If you want to know why it took “so dang long” for Hughes to be a Hall of Famer, even though he is the single most successful high school coach in U.S. history, start with the fact he was OK with being unpopular. That he made a lot of people mad.
And so many of the same people he frustrated are the same ones who celebrate his achievement today.
Robert Hughes, and people of his cut, make people mad but the world needs more of them.
I asked Hughes if he believes prominent African-American athletes have a responsibility to speak out on inequality, or any other societal issue that is outside of bats and balls.
“They need to speak out,” Hughes told me. “They know who they are and what they are trying to say and how it’s done.”
He says this because he lived it. He says this because he knows the status quo does not make it right.
When this man says he walked six miles to school, both ways, he is not kidding. That was Robert Hughes, who was raised on a farm in Oklahoma, long before equality became a priority in this country.
Hughes is fast approaching his 90th birthday, but this is not a crusty old man idealizing the good ol’ days. Because some of the “good ol’ days” for Robert Hughes were depressingly tough.
He lived in segregated America, under embarrassing Jim Crow laws.
Hughes is a proud member of The Greatest Generation, the men and women who made modern America what it is today. Men and women who stood up and said something, and fought for something, often when it was counter to present culture, or flat unpopular.
As frequently as sports fans are irritated when jocks use their platform to speak out on issues, rather than stick to sports, this is just the way things get done.
Have a problem with Colin Kaepernick, or former Texas A&M and current Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, or any other athlete using their status to fight for a cause they believe is just? They are simply continuing what has become a necessary tradition of the American athlete doing society’s work.
So what if they make us a little uncomfortable? If it leads to an improved society, it’s worth it.
Robert Hughes made people uncomfortable, which is a polite way of saying he frustrated them. It was worth it because he made his society better.
As such, his legacy is secure among the generations he coached, at his school, in his Stop Six community, in Fort Worth, and now his sport.
“It was a great, great 47 years for me,” Hughes told the audience. “If I had had the money, I would have paid to be the coach.”
He didn’t need the Naismith Hall of Fame to validate his career.
“Not really,” he said.
But did he want this?
“I wouldn’t fight over it,” he said. “The reason for that is because it’s about like the [game referees]. They knew it, and they knew that I knew it.”
This is Hughes’ way of saying if the referees missed a call, they knew he knew they blew it. That was his attitude about the Hall of Fame, until Thursday. We all knew it had blown the call.
On Thursday, everyone inside the Naismith Hall of Fame knew Hughes belonged on that stage, that his photo belongs among the giants of giants, even if it took so dang long.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof