UNCASVILLE, Conn. - At just 17 years old, a National Basketball Association recruit from Lower Merion High School was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft in the summer of 1996. His name was Kobe Bryant and the ambitious teenager would soon become not only one of the greatest players who ever wore a purple and gold uniform, but also one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
The idea that Bryant would be unable to attend his own induction ceremony into the Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame remains surreal to sports fans across the globe, as many continue to grapple with the sports icon’s untimely and heartbreaking death.
The legendary NBA star was presented by his childhood icon, Michael Jordan, and his wife, Vanessa, spoke in his honor.
"Last February, I called Michael and asked him if he’d introduce Kobe tonight and he graciously accepted, thank you for being here Michael. Kobe admired you, this means so much to us," Vanessa Bryant said and she opened her Hall of Fame speech in her late husband's honor, wearing a purple Dolce & Gabanna dress.
Other big names who were enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame include Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
In that era of the NBA, one of the greatest in the sport's history, Kobe was often victorious against his peers, with a few exceptions. Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs frequently battled with the Lakers as "Best of the West," in the Western Conference for a spot in the NBA Finals. Also in 2008, Garnett and the Boston Celtics beat the Lakers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.
Though they were rivals on the court, they were more like brothers off the court.
HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT CEREMONY
The highly anticipated celebration of Kobe Bryant's Hall of Fame NBA career made for an emotional evening.
In her speech, Vanessa eloquently encompassed who Kobe was both on and off the court, emphasizing how important family was to him, saying how much Kobe and Gigi would have loved being there.
"I wish my husband was still here to accept this incredible award. 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," Vanessa Bryant said during her late husband's enshrinement ceremony. "I know Kobe was very much looking forward to being here. He asked the Hall of Fame to specifically add a sixth ticket for Capri. He was so happy."
She added that Kobe was looking forward to being at the ceremony and about a week before his passing, they discussed his parents being there. "Pam and Joe, thank you for raising Kobe to be exceptional," she said.
Kobe fought through numerous injuries in his career that caused him to miss and Vanessa revealed one of the most challenging aspects of fighting those injuries was the fear of disappointing his fans.
"He never forgot about his fans. If he could help it, he would play every minute of every game. He loved you all so much," she said.
Vanessa also took the time to thank those who have been present and there for the girls, saying "it takes a village."
"There will never be anyone like Kobe. Kobe was one-of-a-kind. He was special, he was humble off the court, but bigger than life. To all of our close friends and family, that have been present for my girls and I, thank you. That list is long and it takes a village, but know your kindness and love does not go unappreciated. I know Kobe is thankful that you’re coming through for his girls. We love you all and are forever grateful for you," she said. "I love you forever and always, Kobe Bean Bryant," she concluded.
Watch her entire speech below:
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Other Hall of Fame recipients selflessly paid tribute to Bryant.
"It’s an honor to go into the Hall of Fame with you [Duncan] and Kob, I love you, Vanessa," Garnett said as he concluded his speech.
"I owe so much to the game of basketball. It has given me a very rich life. I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about something more valuable than money like great relationships and incredible memories. Besides my champions, I got the opportunity to coach some of the great players of all time. The great Kobe Bryant who thrilled is for 20 years right down until the last game," Rudy Tomjanovich said during his Hall of Fame induction speech.
R&B singer Ne-Yo performed a tribute to those who died in the world of basketball including Bryant, Lute Olson and former NBA commissioner David Stern.
Kim Mulkey, also part of the 2020 Hall of Fame class, acknowledged Vanessa Bryant during her induction speech.
"Vanessa, it’s not easy. You’re the toughest women I know to deal with what you deal with, honey. And let me tell you something. Life will reward those children, I promise you," she said.
Standing at 5 feet and 4 inches tall, Mulkey became the first in the history of NCAA women’s basketball to win a national championship as a head coach, assistant coach and as a player. She currently serves as the women's head basketball coach at LSU.
HALL OF FAME ENSHRINEMENT GALA
Kobe Bryant was also mentioned by his peers during the Enshrinement Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala hosted by Lisa Salters on Friday night.
"I grew close to him. Vanessa, Pam and Joe, I thank Kobe and I think you for him. I knew him in his formative years and saw him as a rookie, a five-time NBA Champion, a father who loved his girls, a storyteller who won an Academy Award and believe it or not, a Karaoke singer," sportscaster and Curt Gowdy Media Insight Award recipient Jim Gray said during the Hall of Fame Enshrinement Gala. "He was a man who deserved his beloved reputation, he was a loyal friend. Fran and I will always miss him. Kobe chose "honest" as the word that best described me; I appreciated that. And I hope that current and future broadcasters would remember integrity matters."
For many, memories from the day he died still stings.
"That to me was the most memorable night of my career," Ernie Johnson, co-host of "Inside the NBA," said reflecting on covering Bryant’s death.
Fellow co-host, Charles Barkley, also reflected on that heartbreaking night and said he got the news after watching a movie that morning.
"When I get back in my car, I had like 100 text messages and then I saw what happened and I just sat in my car for an hour and cried," he recalled.
Moments later, the trio of NBA superstars known as "Black Mamba," "The Big Fundamental," and "The Big Ticket," were presented with their Hall of Fame jackets.
"Eighteen times an All-Star, 15 times All-NBA, 12 times All-Defensive Team, Four Times an All-Star MVP so they just went ahead and named the award after him, two times a Finals MVP, the league’s most valuable player in 2008 and a five-time champion who left an immeasurable impact on the generations of basketball players who followed and who left us far too soon, represented by his wife, Vanessa, and their daughter, Natalia, Kobe Bryant," Salters said. The socially distanced crowd immediately erupted in cheers, many of them shouting "Kobe! Kobe!" as Natalia put on the orange Hall of Fame jacket.
To continue celebrating Kobe Bryant's tremendous legacy and his well-deserved induction into the Hall of Fame, we look back on Mr. Bryant’s journey to greatness.
HIGH SCHOOL SUPERSTAR
(Courtesy: Gregg Downer)
Before entering the NBA draft, Kobe Bryant led Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania to the school's first state title in 50 years and was named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year.
During an appearance on Good Day LA earlier this year, his high school coach Gregg Downer said he knew early on Bryant was destined to be a superstar.
"I saw him as an eighth-grader and after five minutes of working with my current varsity, I turned to my assistant coaches and I said ‘This kid’s a pro.’ I mean, I could see it right away," Downer recalled. "I knew who his 6’10" father was, I knew genetically who he was but once I saw the work ethic and the skills at such a tender age, I knew that I had something quite unique on my hands."
Just weeks before he died, Bryant was a guest on the "All the Smoke," podcast hosted by retired NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. During the podcast, he said he developed his "Mamba Mentality" at a young age.
"We had a really competitive household with my cousins and my father and my uncle…you had to really, really work just to survive. That’s swimming, that’s playing basketball, that’s playing video games or whatever. Not only do you lose, but you get embarrassed when you lose. I grew up in that kind of environment, so you had to work hard just to keep your head above water," he said.
WELCOME TO THE NBA
Coming off a spectacular season his senior year, Bryant was one of the most sought-after players by NBA and college scouts.
In an interview with retired Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez and Dan "Big Cat" Katz in 2018 on "The Corp" podcast, Bryant said he would have likely attended Duke had he gone the college route.
"Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] kept recruiting me. He kept recruiting me. He didn't just resign to the fact that I'm going to go pro. He was persistent about it. So, at that moment in time, for me to make a decision and say, 'OK, you know what? I'm not going to go pro,' it would have been Duke because Coach K just kept on keeping on. Roy Williams did, too, when he was at Kansas," he revealed.
Instead, he opted to go straight to the NBA and was drafted 13th in the first round on June 26, 1996. It's hard to imagine the Los Angeles Lakers legend playing for any other team, but he was initially selected by the Charlotte Hornets who immediately traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
It was one of the best, if not the best draft class in the history of the sport. Allen Iverson was selected first in the first round. Along with Bryant, other future NBA superstars such as Stephen Marbury, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Derek Fisher were also selected in the first round.
In his rookie season, Bryant won the NBA Slam Dunk contest and in 1998, he made his first NBA All-Star game appearance.
During his 20-year NBA career, he suffered multiple gruesome injuries. However, after his retirement, he admitted his first three years in the league were his most difficult and that watching his peers like Iverson (who won the 1997 NBA Rookie of the Year Award), Ray Allen, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim get consistent time on the court while he was "glued to the bench," was not how he wanted to start his career.
"Losing to the Celtics in ’08 was tough. But before that, at the beginning of the journey was not playing. So, coming in as a rookie and seeing [expleitive] like this, I would’ve went to school because I felt like my coach, Del Harris at the time, was trying to make sure he did not show favoritism to the young kids and as a result, he swung completely in the opposite direction doing things that weren’t really fair. So, my first 2-3 years were a nightmare," he said during the "All the Smoke" podcast.
With patience and hard work, things took a turn in the 1998-99 NBA lockout season. There were 50 games scheduled between February 5 – May 5, 1999 that season.
"During the lockout season when the season started, Rick Fox had plantar fasciitis in both feet. He [Harris] wanted to play someone else in front of me and that person got hurt and so then, he had no choice but to start me, but start me at small forward. And this is when small forwards were [big]…like KG, Shereef Abdul-Rahim…so I started the first ten games at small forward," he recalled.
Harris was also fired at the beginning of the lockout season, who was replaced by Bill Bertka.
LAKERS THREE-PEAT: THE KOBE AND SHAQ ERA
Led by Phil Jackson and often named one of the best NBA duos in history, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were teammates from 1996-2004 and many Laker fans love reminiscing about their team from the early 2000s.
At the age of 22, while most of Bryant's high school peers were graduating college, Bryant won his first NBA title in 2000.
The Indiana Pacers – a roster that featured Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson and a young Al Harrington – put up a good fight, but were no match for the Lakers who won the NBA Finals in six games.
The following season, the Lakers were unstoppable and despite future Hall of Famer Iverson giving everything he had, the Philadelphia 76ers were swept in the 2001 NBA Finals.
Bryant was consistently relentless on the court throughout his career, but the 2002 season was one of Bryant's best. Not only did he win his third NBA championship, but he was also named the NBA All-Star Game MVP.
His wife Vanessa gave birth to the couple’s first child, Natalia, in 2003.
The Kobe and Shaq era came to an end in 2004 when the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.
It was later revealed Bryant almost signed with LA’s other team, the Clippers. Instead, the franchise traded O’Neal and Bryant was rewarded with a 7-year contract.
BLACK MAMBA IS BORN
Determined to separate his professional and personal life, Bryant gave himself the nickname "Black Mamba," in 2003, which was inspired by watching Quentin Tarantino’s "Kill Bill."
"There’s a difference between who you are and what you are. What I am when I step on that court is… I become that. I am that killer snake and I’m stone cold," he said during "Kobe: The Interview."
The LA icon made the switch from No. 8 to No. 24 in 2006, and that same year, Bryant had one of the greatest performances in NBA history.
On January 22, 2006, he scored a historic 81 points in the Lakers 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Months later, Kobe and Vanessa's second daughter, Gianna, was born.
Bryant, who averaged 35.4 points per game, was the NBA scoring champion during the 2005-06 season. He also won the honor in 2007.
In his 20-year NBA career, 2008 is often considered Bryant's best season. He was named the NBA MVP for the 2007-08 season over Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
Not only did he have a stellar season, but he also became an Olympic gold medalist at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
THE LAKERS REIGN AGAIN
Kobe was determined to prove the Lakers didn’t need Shaq to win a championship and took pride in his leadership role.
With Bryant, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace (born Ron Artest), and more, the Lakers were stacked and ferocious.
"Black Mamba" was in full force in 2009 and is also in contention as Bryant's best season.
He scored 61 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2, 2009.
Bryant and O’Neal, who was playing for Phoenix at the time, shared the NBA All-Star Game MVP.
That same season, Bryant was also named the NBA Finals MVP in the 4-1 series against the Orlando Magic.
Bryant revealed in later years the 2009 and 2010 Lakers were the closest team he ever played on, which was likely crucial to their success in winning back-to-back championships.
In 2010, Bryant won his fifth NBA Finals Championship and was named Finals MVP.
The Los Angeles Lakers were victorious over the Boston Celtics in an intense seven-game series.
THE GRAND FINALE
The final years of Bryant’s NBA career were rocky for the Lakers but the elite player continued to have numerous spectacular performances.
The Summer 2012 USA Olympic men's basketball team was loaded with talent. The roster included Bryant, along with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis.
That summer, Bryant won his second Olympic medal.
Bryant's final All-Star game was one to remember with his second oldest daughter, Gianna, by his side. Bursting with confidence, it was apparent his daughter shared his love for the game.
On April 13, 2016, Bryant's final performance in a Lakers uniform was unforgettable as he orchestrated a 60-point extravaganza in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center.
Overwhelmed by his emotions, Bryant played it cool like he was known to do when he made his famous "Mamba Out" speech during a post-game ceremony dedicated to him.
In his 20 seasons, Bryant won five NBA champions and two Olympic gold medals, was named NBA Finals MVP four times (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), won the NBA All-Star MVP, and was an 18-time NBA All-Star.
His jersey retirement ceremony was held at Staples Center on December 18, 2017 with his wife Vanessa and their daughters Natalia, Gianna, and Bianka by his side.
BUILDING A MEDIA EMPIRE
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: Filmmaker Kobe Bryant, winner of the Best Animated Short Film award for 'Dear Basketball,' poses in the press room during the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, C
Produced by his own multimedia company Granity Studios, Bryant wrote the animated short "Dear Basketball," which won an Academy Award in 2018. To this day, Bryant is the only person in history to win both an NBA championship and an Academy Award.
In addition to film, he wanted to write novels that kids, especially young athletes could relate to beyond fairytales.
"The kids can’t keep reading stories that have no relation to them whatsoever. And I don’t mean just from diversity from a color standpoint, not only just that but the fact that they’re athletes and there’s no story that speaks to athletes. It’s all princesses and sleep and the prince wakes you up with a kiss…we enjoy that stuff but it’s not reality," he said during his "All the Smoke" guest appearance.
His novel "Geese Are Never Swans," which addresses the mental health issues athletes often face, was posthumously released on July 21, 2020.
His sixth novel EPOCA: The River of Sand was released on December 15, 2020.
To add to his film and novel collection, he told FOX 11’s Liz Habib during their final interview that he created the "The Punies" podcast to bond with his children.
INSPIRING FUTURE GENERATIONS
Already a well-established sports icon, Bryant wanted to continue inspiring future generations of athletes by giving back when he opened the Mamba Sports Academy in 2016.
He said he had great mentors during his career including Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bill Russell.
"I felt like it’s my job to pass that information onto the next generation and to see the game develop and see it grow," he told Barnes and Jackson.
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While he took great pride in mentoring, there was no denying how much he loved coaching his daughter Gigi who aspired to carry on her father’s basketball legacy.
"Coaching the kids is fun. It just kind of came out of nowhere because my daughter just decided she wanted to play about two and a half years ago. So, I started coaching her a little bit and she made a local all-star team and that’s where we met the rest of the girls that are now on the team. They all started playing at the ground level but they all enjoy playing so much it just kind of grew into what it is now and it’s been a lot of fun," he said on "All the Smoke."
Some of the last photos of Bryant are when the two were in attendance with the Lakers took on the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center just days after Christmas in 2019.
"There are so many young talented players out there, it’s amazing. When I took her to the Laker game, it was the first Laker came I went to since my jersey retirement and we just had so much fun because for the first time, I was seeing the game through her eyes. It wasn’t me sitting there as an athlete or a player, it was about her. She was having such a good time and the players were coming up and saying ‘hi’ and Bron was talking about her fade away and it was exciting and she had such a great time," he told Barnes and Jackson on "All the Smoke."
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovs
Despite balancing multiple businesses, Bryant made it clear his priority after retirement was spending time with his family and said selfishness was the most misunderstood thing about him.
"When I’m playing, it’s a different side of me. I think it’s the perception of the way I am on the court is the way I am off the court. It’s two completely different things. I can be an absolute teddy bear at home with my family, with my kids and enjoying that family time. I’m really psychotic about having that family time, making sure we’re doing what we have to do as a family, I’m doing school drop-offs and school pick-ups and giving my babies a shower and I’m doing all the stuff and making sure I’m there for them as much as possible, but on the basketball court it’s a completely different animal," he said on the podcast.
On the morning of January 26, 2020, Kobe and Gigi, along with two of her teammates, their parents, and the team's assistant coach boarded a helicopter in Orange County bound for Camarillo to attend a basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. On that foggy day, federal officials said the pilot likely experienced spatial disorientation during the flight when crashing into a hillside in the Santa Monica mountains in Calabasas. There were no survivors.
The Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, renamed shortly after the passing of Kobe and Gigi, keeps their legacy alive. The nonprofit organization works to contribute to charitable endeavors in sports.
Gone but not forgotten, Bryant accomplished so much in his 41 years. With his "Mamba Mentality," his legacy lives on through his wife and daughters, generations of athletes, the city of Los Angeles, philanthropy, literature, film, and so much more.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.