UNCASVILLE, Conn. — No jaw-dropping array of mostly NBA legends casually sitting on stage, mixing with the current group of inductees. No banter, no teasing, no peers or elders out there with whom to interact at all. No traditional ceremony of slipping on the orange Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame orange sport coats. That was shifted this time to a separate Friday night gala.
The challenges facing the Hall’s overdue Class of 2020 enshrinement were evident well before the weekend’s first event. The whole affair had been moved from the shrine itself in Springfield, Massachusetts, to a casino-and-entertainment complex about an hour outside of Hartford where the facilities could simulate a pandemic “bubble,” with space to handle social-distancing needs.
Delaying the event by eight months to comply with coronavirus restrictions was one hurdle. Staging it in the aftermath of Lakers great Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020, with his daughter Gianna and others in a tragic helicopter accident in southern California, was an even greater blow to what annually is a celebration of basketball at its highest levels.
The austere news conference Friday afternoon was a reminder of the bittersweet circumstances of this induction. The honorees each appeared separately, introduced by an emcee before fielding questions from a handful of reporters on hand and others dropping in via Zoom.
Attendance was light by design. So the applause was too, tamping down the usual buzz, the shutter clicks, the chatter afterward as they all lingered in their moment. There was nothing amiss but it sure was muted.
So the task now is to ensure that the actual ceremony Saturday evening (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) lives up to the standards set by this very special set of enshrinees.
The trio of legendary NBA players – Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett – already rivals for sheer star power of some of the Hall’s most impressive classes ever. Adding popular Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, college coaches Eddie Sutton, Kim Mulkey and Barbara Stevens, WNBA great Tamika Catchings and longtime FIBA executive Patrick Baumann makes it one of the deepest ever, too.
Jerry Colangelo, longtime NBA executive who serves as the Naismith Hall’s chairman, believes the event will be suitably memorable.
“We knew that this class was going to be something very, very special,” Colangelo said Friday. “The comparison always is the Michael Jordan induction. That particular induction set all kinds of records in terms of attendance and the money raised for the Hall of Fame.
“But we felt this class, despite the tragedy that took place, had great opportunity to exceed that.”
When Jordan went into Springfield in 2009 he was joined by first-year electees David Robinson, John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan. Other Hall classes bursting with Mount Rushmore-caliber NBA names include 1980 (Oscar Robertson, Jerry West); 1987 (Rick Barry, Walt Frazier, Pete Maravich); 2016 (Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming); and 2018 (Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Ray Allen).
Collectively, Bryant, Duncan and Garnett represent 11 NBA championships, 86,210 points, four Kia Most Valuable Player awards and 48 All-Star selections. Any ranking of the greatest NBA players ever would look silly if it didn’t have all three in, say, its Top 20.
“You look at the numbers, you look at the accomplishments of so many of the people, it’s really a good year,” Colangelo said. “[Those] numbers are off the charts. The number of All-Star appearances, All-Defensive teams, scoring and rebounding. Three of the greatest who ever played, when you come right down to it. And the numbers don’t lie.”
The plan had been to schedule the Class of 2020 weekend as part of a grand reopening of a thoroughly renovated and updated Hall. Upwards of $25 million was raised to update displays with interactive technology, pulling the history and traditions of the game into 21st century.
But pandemic protocols flipped the script: Colangelo, other Hall officials and members will participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the modernized facility. The Class of 2021 will be announced as well, with its enshrinement targeted for sometime after Labor Day.
Colangelo and Hall president John Doleva talked about a special exhibit in Bryant’s honor that will be unveiled with the reopening. Vanessa Bryant, the player’s widow, had a private tour of the exhibit, on which she and trading card company Panini consulted. The extra time of the shutdown gave them a chance to enhance the tribute to the Lakers star.
“The family had a time to think about what they wanted to do,” Doleva said. “[It features] Kobe’s accomplishments, but also about what Kobe was after he left the Lakers, after he left basketball. … So it looks backward, looks at the present and has a hint of the future.”
Jordan, whose affinity for Bryant was so towering and poignant at the memorial service held last year in Los Angeles, will serve as his fallen friend’s Hall presenter. That, too, should amp up the interest and the night’s grandeur.
Colangelo shared in an interview on Sirius XM’s NBA Today show Friday that Bryant will be the final inductee Saturday night, the anchor position typically saving biggest or best — certainly the most emotional — for last. The Hall chairman said that, in spite of more difficult travel protocols, the list of VIPs heading to Mohegan Sun is “going to be like a basketball who’s who in attendance.”
“This would have been an incredible moment for he and his family,” Colangelo said. “I’m hopeful that he gets every bit of his due that he should get.”
The same holds for Duncan and Garnett, too, with the rest of the Class of 2020. They’re a little tardy getting to the Hall, yet right on time.
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