On Saturday morning, the Basketball Hall of Fame made a formal announcement that’s been unofficially marked on calendars since the Black Mamba retired: Kobe Bryant is a first-ballot honoree in the sport’s most hallowed ground.
It is, however, an unexpectedly sobering moment in a world that has had to do both without basketball and without Bryant.
The Laker legend whose 20-year career netted 18 All-Star appearances, five championships and one MVP award was a shoo-in for the Hall – one of basketball’s icons who is instantly recognizable by his first name alone. He will be immortalized alongside two of his decorated peers, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, in one of the best trios of NBA players ever inducted at once. They are among just six players in NBA history who have been selected to 15 or more All-Star Games.
The class also included NBA head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, as well as longtime Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, female coaches Kim Mulkey (Baylor) and Barbara Stevens (Division II Bentley University), as well as WNBA star Tamika Catchings were also among the finalists. Longtime executive Patrick Baumann was also inducted posthumously.
But since Bryant died in a January helicopter crash in Calabasas – along with his daughter Gianna and seven other people – the sport has evaluated his legacy through mourning as a ruthless competitor, a prickly teammate, one of the game’s biggest winners and a dedicated father who advocated for the women’s game during his 41 years.
Millions grieved for Bryant, whose death was deeply felt in Southern California through murals, billboards and countless jerseys bearing both of his numbers: 8 and 24. The Lakers postponed the game that was scheduled two days after the crash, and an elaborate and emotional memorial service was held at Staples Center and broadcast across the world in February. The Lakers had dedicated their season to Bryant – before it was put on hold by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bryant likely has the greatest stature of any player to ever be elected to the Hall of Fame after his death. The 2008 MVP won championships with the Lakers in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010. He stands at No. 4 all-time among NBA scorers (33,643) and ranks in the top 10 in field goals, minutes played and free throws. His retirement in 2016 spurned a year of lavish tributes in opposing arenas, then, in the final game of his career, he scored 60 points in arguably the most memorable individual sendoff in NBA history.
With games suspended and Bryant’s death now having sunk in, one of basketball’s most joyous days carried a pall. The announcement was scheduled to run in conjunction with the Final Four in Atlanta before COVID-19 quarantines resulted in the cancellation of the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments. Saturday’s announcement at least provided something to celebrate at a time when most states didn’t get around to crowning high school state basketball champions and even playground courts in many communities are hoop-less because of the need for social distancing.
The Hall had already made dramatic adjustments after the tragedy, opting to nominate just eight finalists for a smaller overall class.
“We want to make it special for each and every one of them,” Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo said in February. “And it will make it more difficult without Kobe being here, but we’ll do our best.”
It is unclear who will make Bryant’s speech during the Hall of Fame induction, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 29 in Springfield, Mass. Vanessa Bryant spoke at length at the February “Celebration of Life” about her husband and daughter, while Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal also delivered emotional speeches at Staples Center.
Duncan and Garnett represented two of Bryant’s generational foes. Duncan won five titles with the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers’ most formidable Western Conference rival in the prime of their respective careers. The Lakers faced Garnett’s Boston Celtics twice in the Finals in 2008 and 2010, splitting the meetings in a continuation of one of the league’s historic rivalries.
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