UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — Vanessa Bryant took Michael Jordan’s hand and walked down from the stage, a familiar chant breaking out throughout the arena as she made her way back to her seat.
“Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” the crowd shouted.
With that, he was — officially, finally — a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Kobe Bryant is in the Hall now, along with contemporaries Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, headliners of a group of nine who got their delayed and long-awaited enshrinement on Saturday night, more than a year after being announced as the Hall’s Class of 2020.
“Right now, I’m sure he’s laughing in heaven, because I’m about to praise him in public,” Vanessa Bryant said.
And she did, her purple dress matching the traditional Los Angeles Lakers color, capping the night by giving the speech that her husband was not here to deliver.
“There will never be anyone like Kobe,” Vanessa Bryant said. “Kobe was one of a kind. He was special. He was humble — off the court — but bigger than life.”
Bryant, Duncan and Garnett were joined in the class by three-time NCAA champion coach Kim Mulkey, two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich, four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings, three-time Final Four coach Eddie Sutton, 1,000-game winner Barbara Stevens and longtime FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann.
“I appreciate you,” Garnett said to Duncan from the stage. “It’s an honor to go into the hall with you, bro. You and Kob.”
Duncan stayed true to who he is: modest and humble, on a day where his Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, missed a game to see his enshrinement.
“This is the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Duncan said as he began his speech. “Been through finals, Game 7’s, this is officially the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve been pacing in my room all day, so let’s see what we get.”
As usual, he delivered in the clutch.
And the other speeches didn’t disappoint.
The Hall of Fame has a 10-minute countdown clock on the prompter that speakers used to assist with their remarks. Catchings blew past that with ease, going several minutes past in an emotional address that covered her many challenges.
“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,” Catchings said.
Mulkey talked about her roots, coming from a small town in Louisiana and getting to the Hall of Fame — marveling that she was presented for induction by Jordan, who held the same role for Bryant.
“Michael, I’m incredibly honored,” Mulkey said. “I guess the last time we stood this close we were walking out of the ’84 Olympics and we were a hell of a lot younger lookin’ and probably a lot skinnier. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
The totality of the accomplishments of the Hall class are staggering.
Bryant, Garnett, Duncan and Catchings combined for 58 All-Star appearances. Mulkey, Tomjanovich, Sutton and Stevens combined for more than 3,000 coaching wins. Baumann is widely lauded for his efforts in getting 3x3 basketball added to the Olympic program.
“My life turned out better than my wildest dreams,” Tomjanovich said, his voice cracking.
NBA championships, WNBA championships, national championships, Olympic gold medals, MVP awards, the class had some of everything.
“We’re Hall of Famers, guys,” Mulkey shouted. “WE’RE HALL OF FAMERS.”
And while it was a celebration, it was also a remembrance for Hall of Famers lost since the last enshrinement in 2019. Three-time Grammy Award winner Ne-Yo performed “Incredible” in their memories, the video clips playing behind him including a message from former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who died Jan. 1, 2020, and Bryant — who died Jan. 26 of that year in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others.
“I’ve always said that I wanted to be remembered as a player that didn’t waste a moment, didn’t waste a day, and lived every day as if he was the 12th guy on the bench,” Bryant said in the video.
Bryant wasn’t the only member to be inducted posthumously; so were Sutton and Baumann. Sutton’s son Sean Sutton delivered a recorded message on his father’s behalf; Baumann’s son, Paul, and daughter, Bianca, did the same for their father.
“Thank you so much for this honor and for the opportunity to continue carrying his legacy forward,” Bianca Baumann said.
Garnett spoke of legacy as well, the one he has in Minnesota and the one he still wants to have there. When he left the Timberwolves in 2007, they started a huge rebuild as a franchise. Now, with Minneapolis in need after a trying year following the 2020 death of George Floyd, Garnett wants to be part of another rebuild.
“My only regret with Minnesota is that I didn’t get to bring a championship,” Garnett said. “But like I said, I look forward to rebuilding Minneapolis.”
Stevens — who spent most of her career at Division II’s Bentley University — was presented by Hall of Famers Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw, longtime rivals from so many Connecticut-Notre Dame battles.
“You guys good over there?” Stevens asked.
All was well. Auriemma and McGraw had jumped at the chance to be together with Stevens, who, like all the other honorees who were present, had countless people to thank.
“To my former players, many of whom are present: Simply put, you are the reason I stand here tonight,” Stevens said. “My greatest honor was to be called your coach.”
The calendar now shifts to the next class, to be unveiled Sunday at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the next induction ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 11.
Among the finalists: Rick Adelman, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Ben Wallace, Chris Webber and Jay Wright. Bill Russell is also a finalist, this time as a coach, 46 years after he was selected for the Hall as a player.
Many in the next class, like most Hall classes, will be able to say they overcame doubters — just as many in this class did. And on her husband’s behalf, Vanessa Bryant had a message for those who suggested he would fall short of his goals.
“He proved you wrong,” she said.