There were joyful and wistful moments as one of the most decorated classes in Hall of Fame history was honored at a Friday night gala and a Saturday night ceremony, but the weekend will forever be marked by the man who couldn’t be present. Here, at a bustling riverside casino deep in the Connecticut woods, Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, claimed his place in history next to Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and the many other legends on hand to honor him.
“Congratulations, baby. All of your hard work and sacrifices paid off,” Vanessa said. “You once told me, ‘If you’re going to bet on somebody, bet on yourself.’ I’m glad you bet on yourself, you overachiever. You did it. You’re in the Hall of Fame now. You’re a true champ. You’re not just an MVP. You’re an all-time great. I’m so proud of you. I love you forever and always, Kobe Bean Bryant.”
Vanessa sat front and center Saturday, wearing Lakers purple and joined by her three daughters plus Pau Gasol, Sabrina Ionescu, La La Anthony and Ciara and Russell Wilson. Kobe Bryant was the last of the nine inductees to be honored, and Vanessa was joined onstage by Jordan while accepting on her husband’s behalf.
Bryant’s accomplishments — five titles, two Olympic gold medals, 18 all-star selections, a 60-point finale, an Oscar — were recounted in a video montage featuring Jerry West, Phil Jackson, O’Neal, LeBron James and Allen Iverson. “The most important thing is how your career moves and touches those around you and how it touches the next generation,” Bryant’s voice declared near the conclusion.
Then Vanessa explained that her husband took pride in playing through injuries, including a broken finger and a torn Achilles’, because he grew up admiring Jordan’s willingness to take the court every night. Rather than express gratitude on behalf of Bryant to those who shaped his life and career, Vanessa focused her speech on her husband and his legacy.
“Usually people thank everyone who helped them get here, but because I don’t have Kobe’s specific list, I want to thank my husband,” she said. “He did the work. He broke those records. He inspired people to be great. I want to thank him for somehow finding ways to dedicate time to not only being an incredible athlete, a visionary entrepreneur and storyteller but for also being an amazing family man.
“Dear Kobe, thank you for being the best husband and father you can be. Thank you for growing and learning from your own mistakes. Thank you for always trying to be better. Thank you for never giving up on us. Thank you for all of your hard work. Thank you for our family. Thank you for our daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri. Thank you for working so tirelessly to provide for us and for giving us the most amazing life together.”
The Hall of Fame first announced last year’s class in April 2020, and its plan to hold a traditional induction ceremony in September in Springfield, Mass., was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers constructed a bubblelike environment at Mohegan Sun, attendees underwent mandatory coronavirus testing, and attendance was limited to a sold-out, socially distanced crowd of 2,200 in a 9,000-seat arena.
Inside, the hugs lasted longer than usual, like they might at a funeral. Russell and Johnson rocked as they embraced before Friday’s gala, which culminated with Natalia Bryant donning her father’s orange Hall of Fame jacket as the crowd chanted “Ko-be! Ko-be!”
The weekend also belonged to Duncan, a five-time champion with the San Antonio Spurs who was typically understated. The Virgin Islands native warned reporters Friday that he was “not much of a reminiscer” and opened his speech Saturday by admitting that “this is the most nervous I’ve been in my life.”
Duncan thanked his parents — despite their “combined zero basketball knowledge” — and saluted the entire Spurs organization, including his former teammate, David Robinson, who presented him.
“Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker, I can’t wait to see you guys up here and for me not to be up there,” Duncan said of his two longtime Spurs teammates. “It was an honor to share the court with you guys. … [Coach Gregg Popovich], you are an exceptional person for teaching me about basketball and, beyond that, teaching me that it’s not all about basketball. It’s about what’s happening in the world.”
Garnett, meanwhile, bounced with energy, tapping his chest to express his affection and crediting his mother, Shirley, for his fiery personality. Known as a fierce trash talker, the 15-time all-star thanked the Minnesota Timberwolves for drafting him and preparing him for his successful stint with the Boston Celtics, with whom he won a title in 2008.
Presented for induction by Isiah Thomas, Garnett nodded to his Celtics heyday by wearing a green jacket and predicting that former teammate Paul Pierce would be inducted in the 2021 class.
“My only regret in any of this is that I should have came to Boston a little earlier,” Garnett said Friday. “Other than that, it was magical.”
Yet even for Duncan and Garnett, two first-ballot selections, the conversation often turned back to Bryant.
“[Kobe was] a fierce competitor and always demanding more of his team and his teammates than probably was possible,” said Duncan, whose Spurs faced Bryant’s Lakers six times in the playoffs. “He wanted to win that much.”
Garnett and Bryant both made the leap straight from high school and faced off in the 2008 and 2010 Finals.
“I got to see Kobe, and he was very young [and] not as polished as everybody got to see him,” Garnett said. “We used to always interact with that youthfulness, that kid persona. At the end, it was two very fierce competitors. That was our parallel: as much as he wanted to win, I wanted to win at the same time. I miss him every day.”
Indeed, the memories poured in from all directions. Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo hailed Bryant’s sacrifices as part of USA Basketball’s “Redeem Team” that took gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tomjanovich noted how difficult it was to game-plan against Bryant, adding that “he thrilled us for 20 years, right down to the last game.”
Catchings mourned the loss of Bryant as an advocate for the sport, and Mulkey saluted Vanessa as the “toughest woman I know.” Recalling a scene that surely resonated with fans around the world, TNT’s Charles Barkley remembered stepping out of a movie theater to receive the news of Bryant’s death.
“My heart was broken,” the typically jovial commentator said. “I had like 100 text messages. … I just sat in my car for an hour and cried.”