Vanessa Bryant took hold of Michael Jordan’s arm Saturday night, the two of them cautiously ascending a short staircase to a stage in a Connecticut casino complex, and here now were Kobe Bryant’s hero and wife, his mentor and the keeper of his flame, together to induct him into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Kim Mulkey had been funny and Tim Duncan had been self-deprecating, but here now was the moment of the night. Jordan, in a gray tuxedo, stood to the side and said nothing, and here now was Vanessa Bryant, her three surviving daughters in the audience, looking straight ahead, as if to glance anywhere else was to invite a wave of emotion that would sweep her away.
And she began to speak.
“Last February, I called Michael and asked him if he would introduce Kobe tonight, and he graciously accepted. Thank you for being here, Michael. Kobe admired you. This means so much to us.
“I used to always avoid praising my husband in public because I felt like he got enough praise from his fans around the world and someone had to bring him back to reality. Right now, I’m sure he’s laughing in heaven, because I’m about to praise him in public for his accomplishments on one of the most public stages. I can see him now, arms folded, with a huge grin, saying, ‘Isn’t this some s—?’ He’s still winning.
“I wish my husband was here to accept this incredible award. He and Gigi deserved to be here to witness this. Gigi would be so proud to watch her daddy get enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I know Kobe was really looking forward to being here. He asked the Hall of Fame to specifically add a sixth ticket for Capri. He was so happy.
“He didn’t really talk about upcoming awards, but he did mention this one a week before Gigi passed. My husband and I were sitting at our kitchen island, and he and I had a conversation about my mother- and father-in-law attending tonight’s enshrinement. I invited my mother- and father-in-law to tonight’s enshrinement to thank them for bringing one of the most amazing human beings into this world. Pam and Joe, thank you for raising Kobe to be exceptional. Thank you to all of Kobe’s family. Sharia, you’ve gone above and beyond. I love you.”
The tension between Vanessa and Kobe’s parents — over their decision to marry when they were so young, he just 22, she just 18 — has lasted for years. It remains a delicate, oft-unmentioned topic. That she acknowledged them and singled out Kobe’s sister was a gracious and moving gesture. Perhaps there is a chance for reconciliation, for healing. One can only hope.
“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 who have been present for my girls and I, thank you. That list is long, and it takes a village. But know that your kindness and love does not go unappreciated. I know that Kobe is thankful that you’re all coming through for his girls. We love you all and are forever grateful for you.
“If my husband were here tonight, he would have a long list of people to thank that helped inspire him and equip him to be in the Hall of Fame: family, friends, mentors, the Lakers, teammates, muses, and opponents. 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. I thank you on his behalf.
“I don’t have a speech prepared by my husband because he winged every single speech. He was intelligent, eloquent, and gifted at many things, including public speaking. However, I do know that he would thank everyone who 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.
“All of the athletes who accept the Hall of Fame award share the fact that they had to sacrifice part of their lives to dedicate more time to their craft. It takes a lot of self-drive, dedication, and discipline. No one can take away from their own success. Kobe’s personal stats speak for themselves. Kobe was on a different level. He never took shortcuts when it came to basketball. He gave this game his all. Kobe played through injury after injury. To name a few, he had IVs administered during halftimes to play through food poisoning and the flu. He played with a broken nose. He had a broken finger and had it snapped back in place just enough to finish the game. He also taught himself how to use his left hand to play the rest of the season while his finger healed. He even swished two free throws with a torn Achilles and walked off the court on his own.
“I’ll never forget the look he gave me as he walked off the court that game. I knew it was bad. The crowd was cheering, and I was reassuring Natalia and Gianna that Daddy would be OK, just like any other injury. But as he walked into the tunnel, there was no wink, and there was no kiss blown my way. I could see the concerned look on his face. That injury was big, but his comeback from that injury was bigger.
“People don’t know this, but one of the reasons my husband played through injuries and pain was because he said he remembered being a little kid, sitting in the nosebleeds with his dad to watch his favorite player play.”
She paused here, to glance to her right, to Jordan, who smiled a knowing smile.
“He could recall the car ride, the convos and the excitement of being lucky enough to have a seat in the arena. Kobe didn’t want to disappoint his fans, especially the ones in the 300 [level] sections who saved up to watch him play, the kids with the same excitement he once had.
“I remember asking him why he couldn’t just sit a game out because he was hurting. He said, ‘What about the fans who stayed up to see me play just once?’ 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 had many accomplishments: five-time NBA champion, five-time New York Times bestselling author, 18-time All-Star, a league MVP and two-time Finals MVP, two-time Olympic gold-medal winner. He is also the first professional athlete to win an Oscar. The list goes on, but his most cherished accomplishment was being the very best ‘girl dad.’
“Usually, people thank everyone who has helped them get here. But since I don’t have Kobe’s specific list, I want to thank my husband. He did the work. He broke those records. And he inspired people to be great.
“I want to thank him for somehow finding ways to dedicate time to not only being an incredible athlete, a visionary entrepreneur and storyteller, but for also being an amazing family man.”
He had once written a poem, Dear Basketball, to the sport to which he had devoted himself. It was natural to connect it to what she said next.
“Thank you for being the best husband and father you could possibly be.
“Thank you for growing and learning from your own mistakes.
“Thank you for always trying to do better.
“Thank you for never giving up on us.
“Thank you for all of your hard work.
“Thank you for our family.
“Thank you for our daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, and Capri.
“Thank for working so tirelessly to provide for us and for giving us the most amazing life together.
“Thank you for waking up at 4 a.m. to train, for making it home to kiss me good morning, and for dropping our girls off at school, only to go to practice, come home, and pick up our girls from school whenever you could.
“Thank you for never missing a birthday, a dance recital, a school awards show, Show & Tell, or any games our daughters played if your schedule permitted.
“Thank you for putting your love for our family first.
“Thank you for bringing so much joy to our lives and joy to the people around the world.
“Thank you for inspiring us to be better than we were the day before.
“Thank you for teaching me and all of us to put someone else’s joy before our own.
“Thank you for being so selfless and loving with a heart of gold.
“Thank you for never taking yourself too seriously.
“Thank you for your sense of humor. Thank you for your wit. Thank you for never telling me no and always letting me have my way … most of the time.
“Thank you for being patient and easygoing.
“Thank you for letting me burst your bubble every chance I got.
“Thank you for graciously taking all my harsh comebacks. Thank you for dishing them back.
“Thank you for being the Mickey to my Minnie and the Noah to my Allie.
“Thank you for loving me enough to last lifetimes. In every lifetime, I choose you.”
Was this the Kobe of Lower Merion? Of the Lakers? Of Aurora, Colo.? These were questions for another time. This was the Kobe that Vanessa Bryant knew. For one night, for a wife who had lost a husband and a mother who had lost a daughter, this was the only Kobe who mattered.
“To our girls, Natalia and Gianna, thank you for sacrificing so much time away from Daddy so that he could focus on being the best at everything he set his mind to do. Bianka and Capri, I’m so happy you’re here to see this tonight. Daddy was incredible. He loves you girls so very much.
“Congratulations, baby. All of your hard work and sacrifice has paid off. You once told me, ‘If you’re going to bet on someone, bet on yourself.’ 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.
“I’m so proud of you. I love you forever and always, Kobe Bean Bryant.”
Editor’s note: Mike Sielski’s book “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” will be published in January.