UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Vanessa Bryant got a private tour to see some of the newly remodeled Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, viewing the exhibit that will honor the life and legacy of her late husband before the rest of the world gets their first look.
By the Hall’s description, it’s an exhibit like none other.
Fitting, for a special Hall of Fame enshrinement class.
Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett officially become members of the Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday night, the headline event of a three-day celebration of the game. They were rivals for the better part of two decades, three of the faces of the league throughout a critical period of growth for the league, and there is some symmetry in how they’ll enter the Hall together.
“You can go through the list of NBA greats,” Garnett said Friday. “I couldn’t pick two better players — not just that, but two better people, to go in the Hall with. Both of these are class acts and unbelievable players. I’ve very privileged, if I’m being honest. Every since I stepped into the league it’s been like a big-ass dream and this is no different from it. I’m honored.”
The celebration kicked off Friday at the Mohegan Sun Casino — enshrinement weekend was moved there in part because that venue has more space to allow for social distancing — and will peak Saturday with the actual inductions. Then Sunday, about an hour away in Springfield, Massachusetts, the remodeled Hall of Fame will be formally unveiled and the 2021 class that will be enshrined there this September will be announced.
“It’s fitting that this class, the 2020 class, really breaks open the new Hall of Fame,” Hall chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “There’s been an incredible amount of money put into bringing it into the next century if you will. The Hall of Fame was tired, a lot of static kind of things to look at. But technology has changed it dramatically.”
It’s a group of nine being honored on Saturday night: Bryant, Duncan and Garnett are the NBA players going in; 1,000-game winner Barbara Stevens, two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich, three-time NCAA champion coach Kim Mulkey and three-time Final Four coach Eddie Sutton are getting enshrined, along with four-time women’s Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings and longtime FIBA executive Patrick Baumann.
Some of them spoke Friday of their modest beginnings and how reflecting on those days made the emotions for this weekend churn even stronger. Stevens said she thought she hit the jackpot when she landed her first coaching job as an assistant at Clark University for $400 in 1976, Tomjanovich said he didn’t feel ready when he was offered the Houston Rockets job; Mulkey talked about her days as a pigtailed girl playing Pony League baseball with the boys in the little Louisiana town where she grew up.
“I just hope I don’t bawl like a big doofus,” Tomjanovich said.
Garnett still insists he was a risk when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him out of high school. Duncan grew up as a swimmer, not a basketball player. Yet here they all are, set to become basketball immortals.
“On behalf of our family, we appreciate the continuous love and support from fans all over the world,” Vanessa Bryant said in a statement distributed through the Hall of Fame. She will speak on her husband’s behalf Saturday night at the enshrinement, with Michael Jordan doing the honors of presenting Bryant to the Hall.
Bryant is one of three members of the class who will be enshrined posthumously; longtime FIBA executive Patrick Baumann was represented by his son and daughter, and three-time Final Four coach Eddie Sutton was represented by his son Sean.
“We were excited that he was alive to hear the news,” Sean Sutton said of his father, who passed away about six weeks after the 2020 class was announced. “I know it meant a great deal to him.”
The six living enshrinees will speak; the three deceased members of the class will have someone speaking for them. The Hall urges honorees to keep the speeches tight. For some like Duncan, San Antonio’s notoriously quiet superstar, that might not be a problem. For others, the stories will likely flow, as has been the case many times over the years.
The Spurs play at home on Saturday afternoon, a game that will end shortly before the Hall ceremony begins, and the team has a number of ways to honor Duncan planned. Duncan highlights will play throughout the Spurs game in the arena, fans will get a Duncan-themed Hall of Fame mini-basketball and poster, and his Hall of Fame banner will be unveiled.
“My message is the same: It’s a simple thank you,” Duncan said. “I’m honored to be here, but my years there and my years on the court are not the same without the people and the fans, without their support. As much as they are honoring me, I’ll be here to thank them.”