Jerry West was well acquainted with basketball prodigies. In fact, he had been one himself before embarking on one of the finest NBA careers of all time. But, in all his years in the game as a player, coach, scout and administrator, he had never laid eyes on anyone this good, this young. As the Los Angeles Lakers general manager watched 17-year-old Kobe Bryant toy with the nation’s best high school players during the early months of 1996, he envisioned the Philadelphia phenom becoming the first guard to make the quantum leap from high school to NBA stardom.
A few weeks before pulling the trigger on a blockbuster draft day trade that would send Lakers star center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the rights to Bryant, West put the Lower Merion (Pa.) High School senior through a series of rigorous drills against Lakers assistant coach Michael Cooper. Though 40 years old, Cooper was still in fabulous shape, not far removed from his playing days as one of the NBA’s all-time shut-down guards.
Youth was not wasted on the young during the audition. Bryant schooled Old School Cooper. In fact, Bryant was so impressive with his series of throw-down dunks and deadly, fadeaway jumpers that West left the workout early and told fellow Laker staffers: “He’s better than anybody on our team right now.”
Although some worried the smitten West was mortgaging the franchise’s future, Bryant would justify his GM’s faith. The 14th overall draft pick in the 1996 NBA Draft may not have made good on his lofty, career-long ambitions of eclipsing his idol, Michael Jordan, but the self-anointed “Black Mamba” came pretty darn close with five NBA titles, 18 All-Star Game appearances, two Olympic gold medals and more points than all but four players in the history of professional basketball. And on May 15, at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., the one-time heir to His Airness, will posthumously join Jordan in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a year after the induction ceremony was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Bryant, who died tragically at age 41 in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, headlines arguably the most star-studded class in the Hall’s history. NBA legends Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan also will be enshrined, along with 10-time WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings, two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich, two-time NCAA Coach of the Year Eddie Sutton, three-time NCAA champion coach Kim Mulkey, five-time Division II National Coach of the Year Barbara Stevens, and longtime FIBA and International Olympic Committee executive Patrick Baumann.
It’s fitting Bryant, Garnett and Duncan are being inducted together, because they were contemporaries who combined for astounding 48 All-Star selections and 11 NBA championships in 60 seasons.
“I’d like to think that steel sharpens steel, and I’d like to think that the three of us pushed each other to be the best we could be,’’ said Garnett, a 15-time All-Star and the only player in Minnesota Timberwolves history to be named NBA MVP. “To be going in with such a class like this, I’m more than honored.”
Those sentiments were seconded by Duncan, who, despite two MVP awards, 15 All-NBA selections and five championships with the San Antonio Spurs, was often overlooked in discussions of the greatest player of his era.
“We just wanted to win and with that singular goal, I never felt under-appreciated,’’ said the power forward known as The Big Fundamental. “I never dreamt I would be (a Hall of Famer). I played the game, enjoyed the game. I loved what I did, and to be here now with the guys that I will be put in the Hall of Fame with, it’s just an amazing class.”
It’s a Hall of Fame class right up there with the one in 2009 featuring Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton. Or the 2016 group that boasted Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Sheryl Swoopes. Or the 1980 class headlined by West and Oscar Robertson. Or the inaugural class, in 1959, which included the man who invented the game, Dr. James Naismith.
And the valedictorian of this class is Bryant, who served as a bridge between Jordan and LeBron James, and whose shadow looms even larger after the sudden way his life came to an end. The deaths of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in that helicopter crash rocked the city of Los Angeles, the NBA, and fans across the world.
Many current players grew up worshipping Bryant, who once scored 81 points in a game, and capped his career with a 60-point performance. His death hit especially hard in China, where his jersey sales out-distanced all others, including LeBron and Michael. Basketball icon Magic Johnson called his friend the “greatest Laker of all-time,” high praise considering the franchise fielded the likes of Magic, West, all-time NBA scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Bryant teamed with Shaq to win three consecutive titles in the early 2000s, then added two more championships later in his career, after the big center had departed, following a drama-filled, occasionally acrimonious relationship between the two alpha-egos.
“Kobe Bryant was complicated,’’ wrote Time magazine’s Sean Gregory the week following his death. “Never cuddly, he could be ruthless to his underperforming teammates. Critics called him selfish, and knocked him for not passing the ball. He embraced the villainy, real or supposed, creating a pop philosophy he called, ‘The Mamba Mentality.’ It was an approach to life that required extreme focus, discipline, and enthusiasm to take on all comers.”
Bryant explained that he “always aimed to kill the opposition.’’ Over time, the Mamba grew into an iconic persona all its own.
Bryant’s image took a huge hit in 2003 when he was accused of sexual assault by a woman who worked at the resort where he was staying before having postseason knee surgery. In the end, his accuser declined to press charges and Bryant settled a civil lawsuit out of court.
In 2018, he won an Oscar for his animated short film Dear Basketball, and was working on more films as well as children’s books. There was talk he desired to become a Hollywood mogul and perhaps even purchase an NBA franchise. But his life, and that second act, was cut short.
A year before Bryant joined the Lakers, Hall of Fame classmate Garnett became the first player in 20 years drafted straight out of high school when the Timberwolves took him fifth overall. During his 21-year career, the 6-foot-11 center/forward earned All-NBA honors nine times and is the only player in league history with at least 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 blocked shots and 1,500 steals. In 2008, he was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year while leading the Boston Celtics to the championship.
Perhaps because they had burst onto the NBA scene as teenagers, Bryant and Garnett overshadowed the less-flashy Duncan. At times, Duncan was even overshadowed by his Hall of Fame teammate David Robinson, but the lack of pub never bothered him. For 19 seasons – all with San Antonio – the 6-foot-11 power forward just went out and did his job with quiet excellence. Practice after practice. Game after game. His play spoke louder than any words could, and when all was said and done, the one-time Wake Forest star from the U.S. Virgin Islands was regarded by many as the greatest power forward in basketball history. He was the NCAA Player of the Year in 1997 and NBA Rookie-of-the-Year in 1998.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich adored Duncan, and it was easy to understand why. Duncan required virtually no coaching because he was so smart and so consistent, averaging 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, three assists and 2.2 blocks per game in his career. He is one of only three players to participate in more than 1,000 wins. That, and the five titles, are what he’s most proud of.
Catchings began forging her basketball legacy at the University of Tennessee, where she helped Coach Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols win the NCAA championship in 1998. And her legacy would mushroom during her 15 WNBA seasons with the Indiana Fever, where she established herself as one of the league’s pioneering stars. She also helped popularize women’s basketball globally, leading the U.S. Olympic women’s hoops team to four gold medals.
“I never would have dreamed that the WNBA would start in my freshman year in college and I would have the opportunity to play in a league that was designed just for me,’’ she said when the Fever retired her No. 24 jersey in 2017.
The 6-foot-2 power forward averaged 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and was best known for her defensive prowess. She was a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, and remains the league’s all-time steals leader. Named one of the 15 greatest players in professional women’s hoops history, Catchings returned to the Fever last year as general manager.
Tomjanovich may be best remembered for almost dying after being punched in the face by Lakers forward Kermit Washington during a 1977 game. Sidelined for nearly five months with several fractures, Tomjanovich returned to action the following year, earning NBA All-Star honors a fifth time. He averaged 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in 11 seasons with the Houston Rockets, but it was his coaching that earned him his Hall induction. He guided Houston to NBA titles in 1994 and ’95, and also earned an Olympic gold medal in 2000. Tomjanovich remains the career rebounding leader at the University of Michigan and was the No. 2 pick overall in the 1970 draft.
Sutton posted an 806-326 record in 37 seasons at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State and San Francisco. He earned National Coach of the Year honors in 1976 and 1986, and took three teams to the Final Four (Arkansas in 1978, and Oklahoma State in 1995 and 2004.) He is one of only 12 coaches in Division I men’s basketball history with at least 800 wins. His teams won nine regular-season conference titles and eight conference tournament titles.
Mulkey won national championships with Baylor University in 2005, 2012 and 2019, and twice was named NCAA Coach of the Year. She went 604-101 in 20 seasons, an .857 winning percentage. If you tack on her record as a player and assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, Mulkey has a phenomenal 1,164-175 record (.869). The Naismith is the eighth Hall of Fame to induct her.
Stevens posted a sterling 1,058-291 record in 43 seasons at Clark University, the University of Massachusetts and Bentley University. She is one of only five coaches in women’s basketball history with at least 1,000 wins. Her teams strung together five consecutive 30-win seasons, including a 35-0 record in 2014 when Bentley won the Division II national title. Three years ago, the school named its basketball court in Stevens’ honor. She is the first Division II women’s coach to be inducted into the Springfield shrine.
Baumann served as the secretary general of FIBA – international basketball’s governing body – from 2003 until his death three years ago. He was a player, referee and coach before joining FIBA. He also served on the International Olympic Committee, helping promote the growth of three-on-three basketball and its inclusion in the Olympic program. Baumann worked on the commission that helped Los Angeles land the 2028 Olympics.
Scott Pitoniak is a nationally honored journalist and best-selling author of more than 25 books, including the recently published, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” available in paperback and Kindle at amazon.com.
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
What: Enshrinement Weekend
When: May 13-15
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.
Who: The Class of 2020
Inductees: Patrick Baumann, Kobe Bryant, Tamika Catchings, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton, Rudy Tomjanovich
Dr. Timothy Nugent, John Bunn Lifetime Achievement, Posthumously; Dr. Nugent was known as the “Father of Accessibility” who founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association
Note: The Class of 2021 Enshrinement Weekend will be Sept. 9-10 at Mogehan Sun and Springfield, Mass. The inductees will be announced on May 16.