Hall of Fame: Class of 2020

Vanessa Bryant's speech compounds emotion at 2020 Hall of Fame enshrinement

Kobe Bryant's widow, Vanessa, accepted on his behalf with a wrenching speech that kept audiences -- in person and at home -- rapt.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Presenter Michael Jordan comforts Vanessa Bryant after her powerfully emotional speech during the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – They knew this one was going to be tough.

Enshrinement ceremonies for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame invariably confront the passage of time and the mortality of its most beloved members. Heck, it’s right there — “Memorial” — in the shrine’s name, right?

But squaring that with Kobe Bryant, the supernova inductee of the stellar Class of 2020? Nope. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

Sure, nearly every year, one or more of the incoming members gets honored posthumously as the Hall tries to catch up to the game’s history. This year, two other newcomers got their tickets punched a little late to Springfield, Massachusetts: longtime college coach Eddie Sutton and FIBA executive Patrick Baumann.

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The annual In Memoriam portion of the ceremony, delayed this time for an extra eight months and held at the Mohegan Sun casino complex to address pandemic protocols, is a poignant part of each year’s program. The “Forever in Our Hearts” segment this time remembered more members than usual, from Elgin Baylor to Jerry Sloan, Wes Unseld to Paul Westphal.

Two Celtics legends from up the road in Boston, Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, passed away late last year and were part of the tribute. So was former NBA Commissioner David Stern, whose death on Jan. 1, 2020 came after the most recent enshrinement back in 2019.

And then Bryant.

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Look, everyone inside the arena and outside in the greater basketball community knew this was coming. Bryant’s tragic death on Jan. 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash in which eight others, including his daughter Gianna, perished, stunned and saddened people around the globe. In that instant, Bryant’s spot in Springfield and the ceremony to make it official went from formality to something more affecting and sad.

The Los Angeles Lakers legend was supposed to go in as one of three first-year eligible headliners with Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, peers and rivals for most of two decades. There would have been a sense of “Well, of course” to the evening, along with the usual gratitude, humor, reminiscences and jibes in the remarks.

And then, in light of Bryant’s ambitious and impressive post-NBA life, his pursuits in film, publishing and other media, his advocacy of women’s sports and more, the 18-time All-Star promptly would have gotten back to work.

But the guy whose top priority always seemed to be “What’s next?” got waylaid by a horrible accident that clipped his, his child’s and his fellow passengers’ futures short.

It was left to others to bring Bryant, gone too soon at age 41, into the Class of 2020 proceedings. And they did, time and again.

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“The greatest competition brings the best out of you,” Duncan had said at a news conference Friday, setting up similar remarks in his speech Saturday. “And that’s what he always did. You always had to be at your best and bring your best from start to finish if you’re playing against him or any of his teams. … He wanted it that much. And it was an honor to share the court with him.”

Said Garnett during the weekend: “Kobe Bryant was like a little bro to me, man. I got to [know him when he] was very young and not as polished as everybody got to see him. He was very vulnerable. We were both vulnerable. We were both young. And we used to always interact with each other with that youthfulness, with that kid. That kid persona.

“We always talked the game, cracked a lot of jokes on each other, but at the end, it was two very fierce competitors. … I miss him every day.”

Every inductee — from Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich and WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, to championship-winning women’s coaches Kim Mulkey and Barbara Stevens — talked or was asked about Bryant. Near the end of the Friday’s gala, at which the group’s Hall of Fame jackets and rings were presented, Bryant’s widow Vanessa touchingly draped the orange sports coat over the shoulders of daughter Natalia, the oldest of their four girls.

Vanessa Bryant and Natalia Bryant receive the jacket and ring for Kobe Bryant during the Class of 2020 Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala.

Then came Saturday, with Bryant’s turn saved for last. That’s when Michael Jordan, who served as his Hall presenter, led Vanessa to the stage to speak for her husband.

As is the custom with presenters — every new Hall of Famer must be ushered in by an existing member — Jordan simply stood on the stage near her. Earlier in the evening, the former Chicago Bulls star and current Charlotte Hornets owner had presented Mulkey (owing to their friendship at the 1984 Olympics).

But given his relationship with Bryant as role model, mentor and “big brother,” and his emotional eulogy at the Staples Center memorial a month after the crash, Jordan’s presence spoke loudly in silence.

“I know Kobe was really looking forward to being here,” Vanessa began, in a clear, unwavering voice. “He didn’t really talk about upcoming awards, but he did mention this one a week before he and Gigi passed.”

The big countdown clock in the back of the arena bowl — the one that ticked down from “10:00” for every other enshrinee’s acceptance speech — had been turned off. No one was going to rush this moment.

“If my husband were here tonight, he would have a long list of people to thank who helped inspire him and get him into the Hall of Fame,” Vanessa Bryant said. “At the risk of leaving anyone out, I can only say, ‘Thank you.’ To all those who helped him get here, you know who you are.”

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She talked about the things we’d come to expect from the self-dubbed “Mamba,” such as his sacrifices, his drive and his discipline. She ticked off a list of his many injuries, from broken nose to fractured finger to torn Achilles, and explained why he pushed himself to play through the pain.

“He remembered being a little kid sitting in the nosebleeds to watch his favorite players play,” his widow said. “He didn’t want to disappoint his fans … If he could help it, he would play every minute of every game, he loved you all so much.”

She spoke of his accolades and achievements, not only in the NBA but also in winning an Academy Award in 2018 for an animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” based on a poem he authored. She praised her late husband as a father and teased about him as a partner. And it seemed as if the crowd of celebrated basketball stars and their families were buoying her.

Then Vanessa Bryant narrowed her audience to one. From the podium where new Hall members thank so many of the people who helped them get so far, she thanked her new Hall member.

“Thank you for never missing a birthday, a dance recital, a school workshop or any games our daughters played in if your schedule permitted,” she said. “Thank you for being patient and easy-going. Thank you for letting me burst your bubble every chance I got …

“Thank you for loving me enough to last five lifetimes. And every lifetime, I’d choose you.”

The arena was quiet. Her voice grew a little thick.

“Congratulations, baby,” Vanessa said. “All of your hard work and sacrifices paid off. You once told me, if you’re going to bet on someone, bet on yourself, you overachiever. You did it. You’re in the Hall of Fame now … I’m so proud of you. I’ll love you forever, always, Kobe Bean Bryant.”

At that point, the gathering of great players, coaches and executives, family members and friends, VIPs and fans broke into a spontaneous chant.

“Ko-BE! Ko-BE! Ko-BE!”

It echoed in the building after the lights dimmed. It’s echoing now.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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