CHICAGO – With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett headlining the likely inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Class of 2020 already was going to be top heavy in star power.
Factor in Bryant’s shocking death, though, and the rush of emotions and admiration that figure to be triggered when the basketball community gathers Aug. 28-30 in Springfield, Massachusetts for the enshrinement ceremonies, and there was a chance it all would be overwhelming.
Not just for the Hall and hoops fans, but for the honored class members themselves. Bryant deserves the spotlight. But so do other players and coaches, who were at risk of being overshadowed by the focus on the legendary Los Angeles Lakers guard and, to a lesser extent, likely first-ballot enshrinees Duncan and Garnett.
So the Hall chose to keep the list of 2020 finalists tight, announcing Friday at NBA All-Star Weekend the four players and four coaches who will be considered for election this year.
WNBA star and four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings joined Bryant, Duncan and Garnett in the player pool.
The four coaches are Kim Mulkey of Baylor; Barbara Stevens of Bentley University; Eddie Sutton, who took four schools to the NCAA Division I tournament, and Rudy Tomjanovich, who coached the Houston Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 and led the Team USA to gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
That’s a smaller pool of candidates than the actual enshrinement class size in recent years, which has often pushed into double figures.
Jerry Colangelo, Hall chairman, said the decision to have fewer finalists this year was made after Bryant’s death in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash that also took the lives of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, including Gianna's teammates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, as well as Altobelli's parents, Keri and John, assistant coach Christina Mauser and the helicopter's pilot, Ara Zobayan.
“When we met in Dallas after his death, we had to deal with that,” Colangelo said. “The way we dealt with it was, we weren’t going to submit a lot of names. We were going to make it a small class. We want everyone to get their due. That’s important, and it’s sensitive.”
Since Colangelo was appointed to his current position in December 2009, the smallest Hall class has been 10 in 2016. In 2018, 13 Hall of Famers were announced in individual and team categories. Last September, 12 were enshrined, including Vlade Divac, Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma, Paul Westphal and coach Bill Fitch.
To keep the list short this time, the direct-elect categories that send one person each straight to the Hall – no finalist round for them – have been suspended. That includes the men’s and women’s veterans committees, the early African-American committee and the contributor committee. The exception this year is the international committee, which still will select a Hall of Famer to be announced with the actual Class of 2020 at the NCAA men’s Final Four April 4 in Atlanta.
Said Colangelo: “Because of the enormity, even before Kobe’s death, we think Kobe and Duncan and Garnett bring to [this] … we’ve never had a class that strong at the top. And then with Kobe’s death, it added more focus.”
Also announced Friday: Dr. Tim Nugent, winner of the Hall’s John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, basketball’s highest honor for non-enshrinees. Nugent founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in 1949 and served as its first commissioner for 25 years.
Winners of the 2020 Curt Gowdy media awards also were released. Longtime Washington Post and ESPN columnist Michael Wilbon and veteran NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen were chosen for the print and broadcast honors, respectively.
We’ve never had a class that strong at the top. And then with Kobe’s death, it added more focus.
Two other media awards were introduced, with sportscaster Jim Gray receiving the Gowdy Media Insight Award and Turner’s Inside the NBA crew of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal chosen for the Gowdy Transformative Media Award.
Colangelo, who came to know Bryant an opponent while he was running the Phoenix Suns and later as an ally when the L.A. star was a leader of Team USA in 2008 and 2012, said the tragic news was staggering.
“I’ve never seen in my long life,” said Colangelo, 80, “an athlete passing that had the impact that Kobe’s passing had on just people on the street. People who didn’t even know him. In my case, it was personal.”
Absorbing the impact convinced Colangelo to make sure this year’s class – with Duncan’s and Garnett’s careers synched up almost perfectly with Bryant’s – received the proper acclaim, while affording the same to some candidates who might have until 2021 or beyond. Among the NBA’s biggest names who will continue to wait: Chris Bosh, Tim Hardaway, Chris Webber, Chauncey Billups, Marques Johnson and Ben Wallace.
The upside of waiting? Not to get “lost in the shuffle,” as Colangelo described it.
“Sad as it all is, we have to deal with that,” Colangelo said. “And life does go on in the world of basketball and the Hall of Fame. We don’t want to take away from the people here who are prospective inductees.”
Asked if the 2020 ceremony in Springfield might be different as well from recent editions, the Hall chairman said: “Let’s put it this way: There’s a great sensitivity as a result, and so that leads to probably a little bit different than in the past. But it’s going to be done the right way.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting