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Lakers great Kobe Bryant posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame

Kobe Bryant was not one to let the fans down by not showing up.

Throughout a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers — spanning 1,392 regular season games, 220 playoff games and an untold, uncountable number of twilight hours in the gym — the physical toll added up: broken and dislocated fingers; taking IV bags to fight through the flu; a torn labrum; a ruptured Achilles. In between those moments in the spotlight, Bryant’s life came to be dominated by ice bags and stretching, by recovering from the beating he put on his own body.

And yet more times than not, Bryant soldiered through the pain. On more than one occasion, Vanessa Bryant asked her husband why he did it.

“He said, ‘What about the fans who saved up to watch me play just once?’” Vanessa Bryant said Saturday evening, in an emotional speech. “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.”

Kobe Bean Bryant, a competitor synonymous with relentless competitive spirit and squeezing the most out of every minute, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday afternoon in Connecticut amid a crowd of the peers who inspired him and challenged him to be one of the greatest players in NBA history. Bryant herself helped design the exhibit that will house his legacy in Springfield, Mass.

The great and bitter irony was that the man who never wanted to leave a fan hanging could not attend his own crowning career achievement.

In many ways, the basketball world has never stopped reeling from Bryant’s death in January 2020, when a helicopter crash on a Calabasas hillside killed him, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven other people. The raw, tear-stained faces in the arena at the Mohegan Sun resort for Saturday’s induction ceremony spoke to the grief that still is undeniably deep and vast. He was only 41 years old, and Gianna was only 13.

But perhaps drawing on her husband’s sense of resilience, Vanessa Bryant stood in Kobe’s place, calmly powering through a 12-minute speech that breathed life and intimacy into his career achievements. She spoke about his conquests on the court, but also the pride he took in being a father to his four daughters. She touched on his best-selling books, and the Oscar he won in 2018.

These accolades, she said, were the product of an unmatched ambition — the wages of a man who was committed to be the best in anything he did.

“You once told me, if you’re going to bet on someone, bet on yourself,” Vanessa Bryant said, addressing her husband directly. “I’m glad you bet on yourself, you overachiever. You did it. You’re in the Hall of Fame now. You’re a true champ. You’re not just an MVP. You’re an all-time great.”

The moment he retired in 2016, Bryant was shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Piled high, his numbers reach some of the rarest air in NBA history: the No. 4 scorer (33,643 points), No. 6 in shots made (11,719), and top-20 in games, minutes and steals. He was an 18-time All-Star (4-time All-Star MVP), a 15-time All-NBA honoree, a two-time league scoring champion and the 2008 Most Valuable Player.

When the Lakers retired both No. 24 and No. 8, Bryant’s two numbers with the franchise, it was pointed out that if his career was bisected by that switch, Bryant still could have made the Hall of Fame with both the first and second half of his career as separate bodies of work.

A tribute to his aggressiveness and audacity is that Bryant is also the all-time leader in missed shots (14,481) and led the league in that category six times. Like Babe Ruth leading pro baseball in strikeouts during his career, it is revealing: Bryant never met a shot he didn’t think he could hit.

But Bryant’s greatest legacy is inextricably tied to winning: He won NBA championships in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010, a star in two very different eras of the same dynasty. In those two latter championships, he earned Finals MVP. For his country, Bryant was a decorated Olympian who won gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

It was telling that two of his fellow inductees, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, thanked Bryant for inspiring the best in them. Duncan led the Lakers’ greatest Western rival, the San Antonio Spurs, as the two franchises wrestled for dominance during the 2000s. Bryant faced Duncan six times in playoff series, going 4-2. Though he played the bulk of his career in Minnesota, Garnett was the star of Boston’s teams that met the Lakers in the Finals twice, with the historic franchises splitting 1-1.

Standing at Vanessa Bryant’s shoulder was Kobe’s idol, Michael Jordan, whose own steely composure cracked as the still-grieving widow and mother spoke with riveting and heart-breaking insight into her husband’s inner life.

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