UNCASVILLE, Conn. — On a night filled with emotion, the crescendo occurred in the equivalent of late in the fourth quarter of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame ceremony, when Vanessa Bryant closed out the event with a moving, emotional and brilliant speech honoring her late husband, Kobe Bryant.
What was expected to be an amazing induction night when Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were named to the 2020 class became one that was filled with triumph, celebration and also sadness Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Bryant’s untimely death on Jan. 26, 2020 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others changed the focus of the ceremony from celebration to tribute. Bryant was the final of the nine inductees and Vanessa, dressed in a purple pantsuit, gracefully addressed the audience and the world for 12 minutes, discussing her husband’s accomplishments and thanking him for being a father to their four daughters and a husband “who learned from his mistakes.”
It was obvious after Bryant’s death that this ceremony would be like no other in Naismith history. No first-ballot inductee had ever died before their induction and the Hall spent months carefully planning a program that honored Bryant and allowed Vanessa to speak on his behalf.
It has been the Hall’s policy to have family members of a posthumous inductee speak on pre-recorded video. But they made a special and necessary exception for Vanessa, who was remarkably steady during her address.
“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,” she opened. “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 (expletive).”
The crowd, filled with masked Hall of Famers and a limited ticketed audience, roared in laughter and applause. It was a melancholy moment but Vanessa quickly encapsulated her husband’s passion and brash personality.
“I wish my husband was here to accept this incredible award,” she continued. “He and GiGi deserve to be here to witness this. GiGi would be so proud to watch her daddy get enshrined into the basketball Hall of Fame. I know Kobe was really looking forward to being here.”
When he considered his possible induction, Bryant planned to ask for a sixth ticket for his newborn daughter Capri. All three of his daughters were in attendance with the two youngest posing for photos with his award following the ceremony.
“There will never be anyone like Kobe,” she said. “He was one of a kind. He was special. He was humble, off the court but bigger than life. I don’t have a speech prepared for my husband because he winged every single speech. He was intelligent, eloquent and gifted at many things, including public speaking. However I do know he would thank everyone that helped him get here, including the people that doubted him and the people that worked against him and told him he couldn’t attain his goals.
“He would thank them for motivating him to be here. After all, he proved you wrong.”
After that statement, all-time great Michael Jordan, who presented Bryant and was standing behind Vanessa, began smiling.
“Usually people thank everyone that has helped them get here,” she continued. “But since I don’t have Kobe’s specific list, I want to thank my husband. He did the work. He broke those records and he inspired people to be great.
“Thank you for never missing a birthday, a dance recital, a school workshop, show-and-tell or any games our daughters played in. Thank you for loving me to last lifetimes and every lifetime, I choose you.”
The tragedy of Bryant’s death reverberated throughout the world. Bryant became a staunch supporter of women’s basketball after his career and began counseling many younger NBA players, including the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum.
He squeezed every drop of passion and fortitude out of his 20-year career and left the game at peace. In his final trip to Boston, Celtics president Danny Ainge and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck presented Bryant with a piece of the Celtics’ parquet floor.
He was lauded following his playing days as one of the game’s fiercest competitors and relentless workers. And the fact that had won an Academy Award, opened a basketball academy and began writing children’s books hinted that he was headed for a landmark post-career life.
“Congratulations Baby,” Vanessa concluded. “All of your hard work and sacrifice has paid off. You once told me, if you’re going to bet on someone, 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 not just an MVP, you’re an all-time great.”