It’s impossible to fantasize what Kobe Bryant would’ve said at his Hall of Fame speech Saturday night, the way the gifted storyteller would’ve narrated the ending to his basketball life, the tone it would’ve taken and the reaction from the audience.
Vanessa Bryant, not only speaking as his wife but as the person who knew him best — at the simplest and most complex levels — was the fitting person to articulate in the tone to properly describe Kobe’s basketball immortality.
The belief was Michael Jordan — Kobe’s muse and idol — could’ve and should’ve delivered the speech, but it would’ve been unfair to expect Jordan to channel Bryant’s innermost thoughts and feelings from his limited vantage point.
Vanessa, whether true to her character or summoning her own “Mamba Mentality” from watching Kobe do it for all those years, gave a speech at the very least could’ve been the bones of what he would’ve said if he were still alive.
It’s a common thought that while Vanessa knew Kobe as the father and husband, the person behind the scenes, Kobe the athlete belonged to us, because we saw him compete and capsulized his NBA career while he was playing and through his retirement.
Vanessa, though, displayed a depth and insight not even Kobe would’ve stated himself while also giving us the same self-assured bravado Kobe definitely would’ve said, or at least believed.
It was well-known the injuries and ailments Kobe played through; they’ve been documented through time and some memories seared in our collective brains. But Vanessa saw her husband on those days where it was hard to get up in the morning, those vulnerable moments he dared not to show the public in the attempt to keep up the competitive advantage.
“He played through injury after injury. That injury was big but his comeback was bigger,” Vanessa said, noting Kobe’s 2013 Achilles injury where he made two free throws after going down and subsequently walking himself to the locker room.
Most wives see that struggle but unless there’s a unique or tragic situation such as this, it’s usually not expressed. Wives are often spoken of by way of sacrifices and picking up the practical slack when their husbands are devoting themselves to their craft.
But Vanessa showed a different layer, that she wasn’t just raising kids while Kobe obsessed over the game, that she was an active participant in that obsession, that she could feel his agony and triumphs, confidence and uncertainty, successes and failures.
Kobe would’ve balked at the term “load management,” and although so many looked at his exploits as self-serving, Vanessa made a nod to Jordan to her husband’s intentions when she used to ask him to take a game off.
“Kobe didn’t want to disappoint his fans, especially the ones in the 300 sections who saved up to watch him play, the kids with the same excitement he once had,” Vanessa said, mentioning Kobe’s memories of seeing Jordan play live as a kid, bottling up that memory and making it a part of his basketball ethos once he became the standard.
It was a reminder of the old-school mentality he carried, not quite an old soul but far enough removed where his game, so imperfect yet so pleasing at times, hasn’t been replicated — even by the players who idolize him.
Those players wear Kobe’s Nike’s as tribute to him, to summon their own closeness. Vanessa served as proxy for Kobe on Saturday, estimating emotions, choosing moments to reveal his psyche as well as her own.
Her eyes warmed when mentioning the support from his family, notably his sister Sharia. Those eyes turned into darts when speaking of Kobe’s many doubters, those who she believed placed obstacles on his road to greatness.
Her tone, direct and clear, almost seemed to evoke a young Kobe who wanted to destroy everyone and everything in his path.
“I do know he would thank every one 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,” she said. “He would thank all of them for motivating him to be here. After all, he proved you wrong.”
She rediscovered that same cadence later on, the closest thing to a Jordan moment she would have in the speech, speaking in a way we knew Kobe thought of himself but would never say.
“Usually people thank everyone that has helped them get here, but since I don’t have Kobe’s specific list, I want to thank my husband,” Vanessa said. “He did the work. He broke those records and he inspired people to be great.”
Her words were true to our belief of Kobe’s image, similar to Tim Duncan attempting to praise everyone but himself in a speech longer than anyone would’ve expected.
Kevin Garnett gave a slight glimpse into the full picture, albeit stopping short of being able to accept the flowers as he transitions away from competition and into basketball history.
Those three represented the first 10 years of the post-Jordan era, as players who crossed paths with the best version of Jordan in the late ’90s. Duncan’s excellence, Garnett’s undying fire and Bryant’s peerless ambition.
It was clear that while Bryant’s ambition was received with a mixed bag from the public, Vanessa was fully supportive of it. He could fight back against real and imagined opponents on the floor, but if Vanessa had her frustrations this was the closest thing to an outlet of her own.
Largely a reclusive figure until tragically losing her husband and daughter thrust her into a position she didn’t campaign for, the public has heard more from Vanessa in the past year than the previous 20 through the unfair air of grief.
The basketball world hasn’t been the same since the events that began 2020. Starting with the death of David Stern on New Year’s Day and ending with the earth-shaking news of Bryant’s death three weeks later, this close-knit but wide-reaching universe hasn’t found its footing.
The real world wasn’t far behind, as the COVID-19 pandemic produced a different level of grief that hasn’t been filled since, and only recently are we seeing sunlight beginning to peek out, ever so slowly.
Vanessa symbolized that, in her own way, in ushering her husband into basketball immortality. “There will never be another one like Kobe. He was one of a kind. He was special, he was humble — off the court — but bigger than life,” she said.
Vanessa had to step outside of herself to fill her husband’s larger-than-life shoes, and did so in a way we can see Kobe wanting her to.
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