After emulating his idol’s game, competitive instincts and mannerisms during his 20-year NBA career, Kobe Bryant surely would have wanted Michael Jordan as his presenter for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
It remains inspiring considering Jordan spoke so eloquently at Bryant’s memorial last year about their relationship. It also remains bittersweet since Bryant won’t be there for his induction as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer on Saturday after dying nearly 16 months ago in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter (Gianna) and seven others.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, surely will address these themes when she talks on her husband’s behalf. After delivering a powerful speech at Kobe’s memorial, expect Vanessa to eulogize Kobe just as poignantly during his posthumous Hall-of-Fame induction. Still, Bryant’s inability to speak at his own Hall-of-Fame ceremony represents one of the many unfortunate realities since his tragedy.
Those that knew Bryant well believed his Hall of Fame speech would have been as unique as his on-court performances. And though he admired Jordan for how he played basketball, sought any competitive edge and maximized his business earnings, Bryant would not have wanted to be like Mike with his Hall of Fame speech. For all the endless comparisons on whether Jordan or Bryant finished with a better NBA career, Bryant’s Hall-of-Fame speech would have been more uplifting and classier than Jordan’s.
“When MJ said his speech, it was like he still had an axe to grind with certain folks. I don’t think Kobe would’ve gone that route,” former Lakers guard Brian Shaw told USA TODAY Sports. “I think it would’ve been more in terms of making his message something that everybody could get better at in light of the present-day situation.”
Kobe’s speech vs. MJ’s speech
Nearly 12 years ago, Jordan spent the majority of his 23-minute Hall-of-Fame speech rehashing slights both real and imagined with opponents and the Bulls’ front office. Although he thanked his family, former coaches and teammates, Jordan devoted more time airing old grievances.
Jordan picked on LeRoy Smith, the man selected over him on their high school varsity basketball team. Jordan questioned Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf for imposing a minutes restriction on him because of a foot injury early in his NBA career. Jordan critiqued former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause for suggesting organizations play a larger role in winning an NBA title than players do.
Jordan called out Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and George Gervin for the alleged freezeout in the NBA All-Star game during his rookie season. Jordan ridiculed former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy for calling him “a conman” and arguing he befriends his opponents so he can soften their competitiveness. Jordan chastised former Utah Jazz guard Byron Russell for believing he could defend him in the 1998 NBA Finals.
In Bryant’s case? During the final years of his NBA career and the four years in his post-retirement life, Bryant seemed too at peace to be settling scores. He became more focused on ensuring a successful second act of his life than remaining stuck on the accomplishments and shortcomings of his first one.
“It would’ve been a very heartfelt talk,” Clippers executive and former Lakers general manager Jerry West told USA TODAY Sports. “He would’ve been very humble in his speech. He would’ve talked about his experiences in his life, and the people that he respected and admired.”
Make no mistake, Bryant would not have gone vanilla after sharing his unfiltered opinions, sarcasm and quick wit during his NBA career.
Bryant would have addressed criticism over his high volume shooting and demanding leadership style. He would have relived the clashes he had with his coaches and certain teammates. He would have reflected on his trade demands in 2007 after becoming skeptical with the Lakers’ direction. He would have revisited some of the competitive matchups he had with Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, both of whom are also part of the 2020 Hall of Fame class.
And sure, Bryant would have thrown a dig or two at Shaquille O’Neal after the duo spent just as much energy feuding over roles as they did winning three NBA championships together. Consider that after he won his fifth NBA title following the 2010 Finals, Bryant pointed out that he then had more championship rings than O’Neal.
“We’re not going to be able to joke at his Hall of Fame ceremony. He’s not going to be able to say, ‘Haha, I got five, you got four,’” O’Neal lamented on TNT shortly after Bryant’s death. “We’re not going to be able to say, ‘If we stayed together, we could’ve gotten 10.’ Those are the things you can’t get back.”
Yet, Bryant would have looked back at those moments to show how he triumphed over conflict instead of becoming consumed with it.
Bryant would have offered some defiance, context and perhaps revisionist history to defend his behavior. He would have argued those moments of conflict stemmed from purely wanting to win. And Bryant would have explained how his work ethic, love for the game and quest for self improvement resulted in an accomplished NBA career that ended with five rings, two U.S. Olympic gold medals and a fourth-place finish on the league’s all-time scoring list (33,643 points).
“It would’ve been a great moment to talk about his journey,” Gregg Downer, Bryant’s coach at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia, told USA TODAY Sports. “He would’ve talked about how he loved the Lakers and how he loved the ‘no short-cut’ and ‘no-excuse’ mentality.”
Bryant would have explained how that mindset shaped him at different pivot points.
He would have reflected on loving the game as a young child in Italy. He would have shared what he learned from his dad (Joe) and his uncle (Chubby Cox), both of whom played professionally.
He would have detailed how he led Lower Merion to its first state championship in 53 years. He would have explained his conviction to jump to the NBA out of high school.
He would have expounded on how he learned to win NBA titles both with and without O’Neal. He would have relived his career-high 81 point game, as well as his Olympic performances.
He would have extrapolated on how he played through countless ailments and how he returned from three season-ending injuries toward the end of his career. He would have rehashed his 60-point performance in his final game.
“He would’ve looked back and thanked a lot of people – the ones that probably along the way felt many times that they weren’t appreciated,” former Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti told USA TODAY Sports. “He was so competitive. He was only as happy as his last game. But even when that game was over, he was on to the next thing. Most of his career, it wasn’t all about trying to tell people you did a good job. Toward the end, he was much, much better about that.”
Therefore, Bryant would have expressed gratitude with as much frequency as his shots.
He would have thanked Downer for his motivational tactics. He would have thanked West and for the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss for believing in his potential. He would have thanked former Lakers coach Phil Jackson for his teachings. He would have thanked both O’Neal, Pau Gasol and a handful of other teammates for helping him win NBA titles in two different eras.
He would have thanked Vitti for helping him with his injuries. He would have thanked Lakers governor Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka for their loyalty. Of course, he would have thanked Jordan for his mentorship and he would have thanked Vanessa for her support.
Yet, Bryant would not have rambled in his speech. He became an effective enough storyteller to win an Oscar for his short basketball film (“Dear Basketball”), overseeing a children’s book company (Granity) and producing a children’s podcast (“Punies”). He would have leaned on his high school teacher (Jeanne Mastriano) and the published authors he worked with to keep his speech both focused and concise. Therefore, Bryant would have enough time to discuss matters beyond his NBA career.
“The temptation is for people to talk about him being such a warrior. But I think in his acceptance speech, I’m not sure he would focus on that,” Charlotte Hornets general manager and former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told USA TODAY Sports. “I have the feeling he would focus on what he’s been doing recently.”
After all, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame President John L. Doleva told USA TODAY Sports that Vanessa approved for Bryant’s Hall of Fame exhibit to feature elements on his Lakers’ career and the so-called “Mamba Mentality” that he preached both on and off the court.
Therefore, Bryant would have detailed how current NBA and WNBA stars have trained at his ”Mamba Sports Academy.” He would have gushed about coaching Gianna and her teammates on their AAU girls’ basketball team. And he would have shared how his storytelling projects will help the next generation of athletes.
“It really would be about making an impact and continuing to grow the game,” former WNBA player Tamika Catchings told USA TODAY Sports. “I think he would not only talk about growing the game for the men’s side. But he would’ve put a push in there for the ‘W.’ He’d talk about watching Gigi and her friends play, and the opportunities that are there to just build and grow basketball overall.”
Amid a challenging year with the ongoing pandemic and racial strife, Bryant also would have become another former athlete more willing to address social justice issues.
“It would’ve been very calculated. I think his message would’ve been helpful with healing the country,” Shaw said. “He was a person that was comfortable being uncomfortable. So I think it would’ve been memorable.”
Once Bryant’s speech ended, the public would not have just learned about his Hall of Fame basketball career. They would have realized that Bryant had already become a Hall of Fame storyteller.