SPRINGFIELD — When Basketball Hall of Fame President John Doleva was asked to meet Judy Matt in her office, he wasn’t sure what the Spirit of Springfield president had in mind.

When he arrived for the meeting, inside the room he saw the mayor, then-police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood, a couple of officers and others waiting for him.

“I’m like, boy, this is weird,” recalled Doleva. “I sat down and all of a sudden, Judy says something and I’m totally blown away.”

Matt told Doleva he had been selected as honorary chair of the 2024 World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast in the city next month.

“It was a very happy moment. I think I said, ‘Are you sure?’ three or four times. I have a list of 112 people that should go before me.”

Matt said she was sure, Doleva accepted on behalf of himself and the attraction leads.

“This is a recognition of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and I’m the embodiment of that. I take it as an honor for the organization and appreciate it,” Doleva told Reminder Publishing.

Doleva joined the Hall in 1999 as vice president of marketing and became its president and CEO in 2001, when he said the hoop shrine had exhausted its popularity and started losing fans.

“The museum got tired around 2013 because the exhibits hadn’t changed in years,” he said.

“Admission had fallen to around 180,000 visitors and the Hall was $14 million in debt,” he added.

“We were in severe financial shape. We had a capital campaign that failed and it was a struggle for quite a few years. Being here now and seeing what we’ve been able to do … it took a long time.”

With a budget of $12 million, attendance has risen 40% to 240,000 visitors annually. The museum is now generating a surplus, has built up a $6 million endowment and conducted a $30 million capital campaign, which funded a $25 million renovation of the 40,000-square-foot facility. Millions more have been set aside for financial emergencies.

“The most exciting thing is getting the organization stabilized financially and being able to elevate the impression of the museum in the basketball community,” he said.

Hall of Fame visitors travel to Springfield from all 50 states over the course of a year, and from 14 countries, said Doleva. Most fans come from the areas of Boston, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City.

Doleva noted an influx of visitors from California when the hoop shrine unveiled a tribute to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a 2020 helicopter crash. The president hopes to keep spiking attendance with a host of new exhibits and interactive experiences.

“We’ve learned from our friends at Six Flags, if you don’t have a new thrill ride or a roller coaster every year, sooner or later people are going to say, ‘Been there, done that,’” he stated.

The Hall of Fame is embarking on a journey to open one new exhibit a year for the next five years. “I don’t mean a small exhibit, I mean a million dollar plus exhibit,” he revealed.

Doleva said he has plans to unlock an intriguing new area called the vault that will showcase artifacts tucked away in the museum or loaned to it by basketball fans. The space is scheduled to open May 31.
“You’ll walk through a door, which looks like it’s from an old bank. Our first exhibit will be the history of the Boston Celtics. We’re asking collectors to go into that corner of the basement, where they have their super high-value memorabilia, and loan it to the Hall of Fame,” said Doleva.

Doleva also said the Hall will bring out its never-before-seen “stash” of memorabilia that will be showcased in the vault.

With plans to host a range of functions, from events and meetings to fundraisers and other attractions, the facility may now be on the map globally, but is also a center of the local universe.

“Twenty years ago, we couldn’t face anything like that. Now, we’re in a really good spot to grow the business and impact of the organization on a global basis,” he said. “For fans, this is a place of celebration and inspiration.”

Doleva’s next achievement — leading the pancake breakfast as chief flapjack flipper.

“We have honored Springfield icons, public safety officials, political and community leaders by naming them the World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast Honorary Chair,” said Matt. “This year, the honor goes to John Doleva, who is being recognized for his leadership of the international museum, and the attention it brings to the city of Springfield where the game was invented.”

The breakfast will take place on May 18, from 8-11 a.m. on Main Street from State Street to Bridge Street.

Staasi Heropoulos
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