Despite some restorative moments on the court, it has been a hard and sad time, saying goodbye constantly to legends, pondering the sport’s place during a pandemic, watching athletes and coaches grapple with systemic injustice. At the same time, the struggles have been life-affirming. So for all the bittersweet emotions of this induction, it was the celebration that basketball needed.
Even when it hurt, it felt right. Even though the coronavirus delayed the 2020 class’s moment by eight months, it arrived on time. With the NBA playoffs about to begin, with the WNBA tipping off its 25th anniversary season, with the country reopening and arenas welcoming back fans, basketball needed this event for its emotional recovery.
Maybe it alleviates some of the heaviness. It is hard to be sure. Healing can be complicated and unending. But this day offered a powerful nudge to carry on, create new memories, to honor the legacies of Bryant, John Thompson Jr., Elgin Baylor, Wes Unseld and so many others by investing in the game.
If despair paralyzed basketball, then this induction was the most important event of the 2020-21 season. For those still in shock, it should be taken as permission to commence enjoyment. There is no guarantee that more pain won’t come. In fact, it is almost certain to return. But the best way to keep legends alive is to protect what houses their greatness.
They’re all here to amplify the game. Stardom is aspirational, but stewardship is mandatory. As Bryant once said, “The most important thing is how your career moves and touches those around you and how it touches the next generation.”
Tamika Catchings, a Class of 2020 inductee who fit perfectly in a banner class that also included Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, spoke passionately about the game’s hold on her.
“Basketball chose me, an awkward, lanky, introverted tomboy, born with a hearing disability, a speech impediment and a will to overcome obstacles, dream big and to change the world,” she said.
It was an unfamiliar Hall of Fame experience. No former NBA superstar of Bryant’s top-shelf caliber had died so young. He was 42 when that helicopter crash killed him, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others Jan. 26, 2020. His posthumous induction brought sadness, but while Bryant’s absence dominated attention, it also gave meaning to every heartfelt remark and inspirational message that the other recipients uttered.
Nothing could top the catharsis of the Bryant memorial service 15 months ago at Staples Center. But this event was an inclusive appreciation of basketball. Michael Jordan, who was a presenter, didn’t speak publicly and avoided crying this time. Nevertheless, his support of Coach Kim Mulkey and Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, said plenty.
While each spoke, he stood behind them, wearing a gray tuxedo, being the best version of Jordan without doing anything extraordinary. He grinned when Vanessa referenced her husband proving doubters wrong. Twelve years ago, when Jordan was inducted, he redefined petty with a speech that illustrated how important grudges were to his competitive drive.
It was not his classiest hour. This time, the sport’s most iconic player turned human again during an enshrinement, but he was genuine, graceful and understated. He was the big brother, standing tall for Bryant’s wife. What a simple yet profound basketball moment. At the legendary level, the game can still be intimate.
“People don’t know this, but one of the reasons my husband played through injuries and pain was because he said he remembered being a little kid, sitting in the nosebleeds with his dad to watch his favorite player play,” Vanessa Bryant said, looking back at Jordan. “He could recall the car ride, the convos and the excitement of being lucky enough to have a seat in the arena. Kobe didn’t want to disappoint his fans, especially the ones in the 300 section that saved up to watch him play, the kids with the same excitement he once had.
“I remember asking him why he couldn’t sit a game out because he was hurting. He said, ‘What about the fans who saved up to watch me play just once?’ He never forgot about his fans. If he could help it, he would play every minute of every game. He loved you all so much.”
The strength of Vanessa Bryant is remarkable. Because her husband was such a moving public speaker, his absence from this ceremony seemed even more poignant. He would have given an epic speech, and he probably would have done it in multiple languages. Nevertheless, in his wife’s words, his impact became clear, and so did his desire to improve. In retirement, it seemed as if Bryant’s complicated life was just beginning.
“I used to always avoid praising my husband in public because I felt like he got enough praise from his fans around the world and someone had to bring him back to reality,” Vanessa said. “Right now, I’m sure he’s laughing in heaven because I’m about to praise him in public for his accomplishments on one of the most public stages. I can see him now, arms folded, with a huge grin, saying, ‘Isn’t this some s---?’
“He’s still winning.”
At the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where the inductees live forever, mortality crashed the celebration. Sixteen months later, after so many deaths, it remains agonizing to confront. Yet the game will continue. And the next super-saving fan is about to buy a ticket.