Opinion: Kobe Bryant deserved to give what would have been a memorable Hall of Fame speech

The entire NBA family has had more than two months to grieve, console each other and share memories. That has not been enough time to fully process Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others dying in a helicopter crash.

So when the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced Bryant as a first ballot selection Saturday, this was not just a moment to celebrate how Bryant won five NBA championships, became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and overcame too many injuries to count. This was also a moment that reopened a wound that may not ever fully heal.

“Obviously we wish he was here with us to celebrate, but it’s definitely the peak of his NBA career,” Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, told ESPN shortly after the announcement. “Every accomplishment that he had as an athlete was a stepping stone to be here. We’re incredibly proud of him. There’s some solace in him knowing he would be a part of the 2020 Hall of Fame class.”

But there is also an incredible amount of sorrow that Bryant won’t be part of the 2020 class in person. We lived through these same emotions so many times. When the Lakers played their first game following Bryant’s passing and LeBron James delivered an inspiring speech beforehand. When the NBA honored Bryant at All-Star weekend in Chicago with various video tributes and performances. When the Kobe and Gianna Bryant memorial took place at Staples Center headlined by Vanessa’s moving speech. Just like those moments, this Hall of Fame ceremony will be cathartic and emotional.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bryant was supposed to deliver a speech that fully matched his complex personality. He would share tales on how he stubbornly overcame injuries. He would defend his demanding leadership style. He would express gratitude for the various mentors that shaped him. And after becoming passionate about storytelling following his NBA career, Bryant would deliver a speech that no scriptwriter could ever write.

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Bryant would offer precise details about how he fell in love with basketball as a young kid growing up in Italy and in Philadelphia. Bryant would express gratitude that former Lakers general manager Jerry West secured his draft rights in 1996 by trading fan favorite Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets. Bryant would shout out his other various muses, whether it entailed an NBA star he modeled his game after (Michael Jordan), a coach’s wisdom he eventually appreciated (Phil Jackson) or an NBA luminary that played for the hated Boston Celtics (Bill Russell).

Bryant would spin epic tales on how he scored a career-high 81 points, how he overcame a left Achilles injury or how he dropped 60 points in his final game. Bryant would offer defiance, context and perhaps some revisionist history on his clashes with Shaquille O’Neal, his trade demands in 2007 or his high-volume shooting. Bryant would surely bring up his battles with other new Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Bryant would gush about the women’s game, including what he admired about inductee Tamika Catchings.

Nearly every NBA fan became familiar with all the intimate details about Bryant’s career. But the stories never got old. There were always new details to emerge atop the ones we already knew. There were always new anecdotes no one knew about until Bryant and those he impacted eventually shared them.

“Kobe was always one to downplay his professional accomplishments — MVPs, NBA championships, gold medals, Oscars, and on and on and on,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said in a statement. “But all of us can trust that this Basketball Hall of Fame honor is one Kobe would, and will, deeply appreciate. The highest of congratulations to you, dear friend. This one is so well deserved — for all the hard work, sweat and toil. Now, a part of you will live in the Hall with the rest of the all-time greats, where your legend and spirit will continue to grow forever.”

Because of that spirit, Bryant’s Hall of Fame induction will still be memorable. But it would have been much better for him to be there, obviously.

There would have been intrigue about whom Bryant would choose as his presenters. Would one of them be Jordan, who delivered a memorable speech at Bryant’s memorial about how he became a “big brother” to him? Would one of them be Jackson, who eventually inspired Bryant to appreciate his triangle offense and meditation practices? Would one of them be Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, whom Bryant credited for knowing how to motivate him? Would one of them be Lower Merion English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, whom Bryant said inspired his passion for storytelling? Would one of them have been WNBA star Diana Taurasi, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma or Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu about how Bryant supported women’s basketball?

“No amount of words can fully describe what Kobe Bryant meant to the Los Angeles Lakers,” Lakers controlling governor Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “Kobe was not only a proven winner and a champion, he gave everything he had to the game of basketball. His fierce competitiveness, work ethic and drive were unmatched. Those qualities helped Kobe lead us to five titles — and have now brought him to the Hall of Fame, where he will be enshrined with the greatest to have ever played the game. No one deserves it more.”

And yet Bryant also deserved something more and something so simple. He deserved to be able to stand on stage, accept his award and fully process the significant contributions he made to the game he loved.

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