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Alexander: A hard act to follow for Vanessa Bryant

It had to be the hardest act possible to follow.

At the very end of Saturday night’s Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Uncasville, Conn., after other inductees had gone to the podium and profusely thanked and recognized those who had helped them reach the pinnacle of the sport, Vanessa Bryant was asked to give the acceptance speech for her late husband, Kobe.

“I don’t have a speech prepared by my husband, because he wings every single speech,” she said. “He was intelligent, eloquent and gifted at many things, including public speaking. However, I do know that 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 all of them for motivating him to be here. After all, he proved you wrong.”

I’m not sure how many others noticed, but in the background Michael Jordan seemed to be smirking.

Jordan, who was Vanessa’s presenter – and the player after which Kobe so noticeably patterned himself – gave a speech that was legendary in its own way the day he was inducted into the Hall in 2009, mainly notable for settling old scores and responding to those who doubted him at their peril. He, too, was motivated by the slights and the smart remarks, and if there were ever a sliver of a doubt remaining that Kobe’s approach to the game mimicked that of MJ, it should have been disabused right there.

Vanessa did not have a list of those to thank. “since I don’t have Kobe’s specific list.” She did mention “family, friends, mentors, the Lakers, teammates, muses and opponents,” then took a deep breath and continued: “This is one of the many hard parts about not having him here. At the risk of leaving anyone out. I can only say thank you. To all those who helped him get here, you know who you are, and I thank you on his behalf.”

She did take a moment at the top of her speech to thank Kobe’s parents, Joe and Pam Bryant, “for bringing one of the most amazing human beings into this world,” as well as thanking his older sister, Sharia Washington, for having “gone above and beyond.” It was not apparent whether Kobe’s parents attended the ceremony.

Vanessa did talk about how Kobe “never took shortcuts when it came to basketball,” and others who spoke during the weekend shared their own stories about the zeal with which Kobe attacked his preparation to excel.

During Friday’s media availability Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Hall of Fame and chairman ex officio of USA Basketball, recalled Bryant coming to his office in Phoenix two days after his 81-point game against Toronto in January, 2006. The subject was the 2008 Olympic team, and Colangelo recalled suggesting that Bryant might be a distributor instead of a scorer and Kobe responded, “I’ll do whatever you want, because I want to be on that team.”

When that team assembled for training camp in ’08, Bryant “was in the workout facility at 5:30 in the morning” on the first day, Colangelo recalled, adding that it wasn’t long before people like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were joining him on that dawn patrol.

“And then the first scrimmage that we had, the ball literally went up to start the scrimmage and there was a loose ball,” Colangelo said. “And Kobe went headfirst, could have hurt himself. He set the tone, is my point, from the moment he put on the USA jersey.”

The other aspect of Kobe that is missed so much is his advocacy of girls’ and women’s basketball. When photos circulated of Kobe wearing an orange WNBA hoodie while sitting courtside with daughter Gianna at a Lakers-Mavericks game in December of 2019, sales of that garment boomed.

“I felt as though he was going to do great things for women’s basketball,” said Barbara Stevens, the retired coach at Division II Bentley (Mass.) University, inducted this weekend as the fourth winningest coach in women’s basketball history.

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