The Hall has called three of the NBA’s most iconic figures to its doors, and although the circumstances have made it tough to celebrate them in full, it’s the most star-studded, decorated class that will be enshrined in Springfield in some time.
Kobe Bryant’s star shined brighter and longer than contemporaries Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, and dimmed lower through controversy. And through Bryant’s unfortunate death, his legacy has taken on a greater, more complete conversation — taking the place of what was sure to be a reflective, insightful and memorable headlining speech in September.
Even if these three players weren’t headed for induction in the same year, their stories and roads through basketball would be forever intertwined.
They’re so dissimilar with their approaches, demeanors and on-court attitudes, yet the common thread that bonded them was an uncommon thirst for excellence, individually and collectively, in the pursuit of championships and places in history.
Bryant was complicated, Garnett pioneering and Duncan freakishly steady. Bryant’s story is easier to compartmentalize and analyze, given his chase of Michael Jordan’s legacy, his quarrels with Shaquille O’Neal, and his association with the glamour franchise of the NBA. We’ll miss the way Bryant would’ve reflected on his journey, his path from prep star to pro prospect as he followed Garnett’s lead in skipping college, and the bread crumbs he acquired at each notable intersection of his basketball road that made him so compelling — and at the same time, so difficult to firmly fit in history.
The numerous eulogies from so many adoring competitors presented a love we don’t know Bryant felt during his time on Earth, and had circumstances been different, that love would’ve been on full display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with standing ovations, laughs and tears.
Garnett and Duncan were opposite sides of the same coin for so long, battling for the top power forward spot in the Western Conference for years while inheriting disparate circumstances.
Garnett’s fire warmed up so many cold nights in Minneapolis, importing himself into a football- and baseball-rich city to give it an identity. It allowed him to grow from a teen, whose passion belied his need for stability and loyalty, to an adult who understood how to lead, develop and, later on, create an unconventional championship culture in Boston.
Duncan’s consistency and groundhog-day mentality enabled many to overlook his own fire, because it didn’t look like Garnett’s often controlled rage — the same way Garnett’s nightly excellence was often obscured by a few antics or the fact he couldn’t win at the highest level like Duncan could.
Duncan was the perfect fit in San Antonio, much like Garnett was in Minneapolis and later, Boston. Duncan didn’t need seismic or volatile circumstances to thrive, and his words weren’t as aggressive as Garnett’s or as pointed as Bryant’s.
But his sentiment was just as powerful, if not more so. And his play was the anchor for not only five championships with the Spurs but yearly contention, a culture of accountability for all around him and respect from those who stood across from him.
It wasn’t his silence that made him more compelling or even more respected. Duncan was unwavering, never shook, even in the face of failure, even when Bryant’s elevator went to higher levels during memorable playoff battles.
Duncan raised his game following a quick apprenticeship with David Robinson, making for a smooth transition from one transcendent big to another, going from a player many thought was too polished, given his four-year stint at Wake Forest, to being the most remarkable big man since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In fact, his consistency made it easy to discount his excellence because it looked like he couldn’t get to O’Neal’s level or Hakeem Olajuwon’s pinnacle. But he was just as great and took no backseat to any of them, with the years of 20 and 10 equaling or exceeding all of them.
Garnett and Duncan could’ve flip-flopped locales and neither would’ve been any less great. Perhaps Garnett would have more than one ring than his magical 2008 season in Boston, and maybe Duncan would’ve elevated the Timberwolves slightly higher than Garnett if he had the verve to stay through the necessary growth the franchise needed to undergo.
But nobody was as built for a city the way Bryant was made for Los Angeles, and for the Lakers. It’s difficult to envision him in Charlotte Hornets teal and purple, or Knicks blue or Celtics green or any other uniform.
His announcement to go pro was more risky than even Garnett’s uncharted path. Garnett was a 7-foot freak with guard skills, just waiting for basketball puberty to hit and carry him to a place where his ability and maturity would reach an inevitable crescendo.
Bryant was an average-sized shooting guard with good athleticism, decent genes and yet an insatiable desire to exceed anyone’s modest expectations. When he and 1996 No. 1 pick Allen Iverson hung out with Bryant one night during their rookie season, and Iverson declared he was “going to the club” to take in the seductive Los Angeles nightlife.
Bryant? He told Iverson he was headed to the gym, as he was playing behind a fellow future All-Star in Eddie Jones, next to a transcendent big in O’Neal and there was no easy path to where he wanted to go.
Everything Bryant got, he took. In the city that embraced or created so many stars out of sheer location, Bryant couldn’t be swayed by the possibilities — he had to leave nothing to chance and embraced the work. He could be beaten, out-gifted by the best of the best.
But he would very rarely be across from someone more relentless than him, even when the results were to his detriment.
Bryant and Garnett could be bullies, weeding out the unwilling and the less than useful. It’s a tantalizing thought to picture the two parallel fires burning together had Garnett joined the Lakers in 2007, when he finally wanted out of Minnesota and Bryant was wavering on his commitment to a franchise that seemed to lose its way in the years following the trade of O’Neal in 2004.
But they were better as compelling combatants, criss-crossing in playoff battles instead of joining forces. Along with O’Neal, the three were the faces of the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron NBA, combining for 15 appearances in the magical month of June.
The levels of the respective speeches at their enshrinements would’ve been a study in messaging. Bryant, controlled and complete. Garnett, passionate, rambling and emotional. Duncan, precise with simplistic clarity.
Together, they made history.
But tragically, we can’t help but wonder what we’ll miss because their greatness was enhanced by the presence of each other.
Bryant very rarely left us wanting more — but he leaves us wanting in this moment.
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