Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the late Kobe Bryant, accepted her husband's admission into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Saturday night on his behalf, saying that he's still winning even after he's gone.
"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," Vanessa Bryant said at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. "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."
The 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class is one of the most star-studded of all time, led by Bryant and fellow NBA legends Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan -- a trio that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said earlier Saturday is better than any in the history of the institution.
"There has not been a better Big Three to go in at the same time," James said.
Still, the focus of the night, and the weekend, was understandably on the man who wasn't there, in the wake of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others on Jan. 26, 2020.
Vanessa Bryant's speech, given with Bryant's idol, Michael Jordan, standing next to her as his presenter into the Hall of Fame, focused on her relationship with her husband, as well as his with his children.
"I don't have a speech prepared by my husband because he winged every single speech," she said. "He was intelligent, eloquent and gifted at many things, including public speaking. However, I do know that he would thank everyone that helped him get here, including the people that doubted him and the people that worked against him and told him that he couldn't attain his goals.
"He would thank all of them for motivating him to be here. After all, he proved you wrong."
Vanessa Bryant also spoke about his legendary determination and will to play through injuries, including when he made two free throws and walked off the court under his own power after tearing his left Achilles tendon.
She said that ability came from watching Jordan while growing up, and following Jordan's example of trying to always put on a show for the one person who might get to see him play only that night, in only that game.
"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 said, sneaking a look at Jordan while the crowd laughed. "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 section that saved up to watch him play, the kids with the same excitement he once had.
"I remember asking him why he just couldn't sit a game out because he was hurting. He said, 'What about the fans who saved up to watch 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."
Ultimately, though, she said Bryant's favorite fans were his daughters, whom he doted on constantly and whose events he tried his best to attend.
"Thank you for being the best husband and father you could possibly be. Thank you for growing and learning from your own mistakes," Vanessa Bryant said. "Thank you for always trying to be 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 you 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-and-tell or any games our daughters played in 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 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."
She finished by telling Bryant that his bet on himself, as he'd once told her is always the best one to make, had paid off.
"Congratulations, baby. All of your hard work and sacrifice has paid off," she said. "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."
While Vanessa Bryant's speech was a fitting conclusion to the star-studded event, it was far from the only notable moment from a night that took far longer to arrive than initially planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was Garnett who led off the festivities Saturday evening -- an honor he said he requested.
"I told them I wanted to go first," the 15-time All-Star, 12-time All-Defensive Team and nine-time All-NBA selection said with a smile, "because I know we've got the OGs in here. I know y'all have got a bedtime in a minute. I wanted Bill Russell to hear my speech before y'all fell asleep."
He then went on to thank the four players who jumped from high school to the pros in the 1970s -- 20 years before Garnett became the first to do it in decades in 1995, when Minnesota drafted him fifth overall.
"It's a big deal for me to pay homage to the ones that came before me," Garnett said.
He also thanked Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Jordan, as well as Isiah Thomas, whom Garnett selected as his presenter for Saturday's ceremony. It was Thomas, a fellow Chicago high school player who was running the Toronto Raptors at the time, who Garnett said gave him advice that helped convince him to officially make the jump from preps to pros in 1995.
"I think today," Garnett said with a smile, "they would call that tampering."
After thanking his mother, Shirley, whom he said was the one to blame for the passion and intensity with which he played throughout his 21-year career. He thanked his daughters and those who helped raise him in South Carolina and Chicago. Garnett went through and listed thank-you's to many of those he crossed paths with during his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets.
Some of them, including former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Celtics teammate Paul Pierce and Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Sam Cassell, were in attendance.
And then there were the notable people Garnett did not mention: Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, with whom Garnett has feuded for years; Ray Allen, part of the Big Three in Boston that led the Celtics to the 2008 NBA title; and Deron Williams, the player Garnett was traded to Brooklyn to play alongside in 2013.
"I played the game hard," Garnett said, summing up his approach to the sport. "I played the game with a passion."
He finished his speech by acknowledging Duncan, whom he battled for the honor of being the best power forward in the sport for a decade, and Bryant.
"It was nothing but epic when we battled," Garnett said to Duncan. "I look forward to all the battles. Seriously. And I thank you for taking me to another level, you and Rasheed [Wallace]."
Garnett was followed by longtime college coaches Barbara Stevens and Eddie Sutton, before WNBA legend Tamika Catchings took the stage.
"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." Vanessa Bryant accepting the induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on her late husband's behalf on Saturday.
Catchings had one of the best careers in women's basketball history -- 12 All-WNBA selections, five Defensive Player of the Year Awards, a WNBA MVP, a WNBA championship and four Olympic gold medals.
"I am proof that [with] hard work, undying faith and a solid support system, dreams do come true," said Catchings, who wears hearing aids.
"They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say it takes a village to make dreams come true. To all of the people who have been part of my village, thank you. We all have dreams and goals and whether you're young or old, born with a disability, or have been told of the things you can't accomplish, tonight I share the same words that my parents shared with me: What's a choice? If anyone can do it, you can. Shoot for the stars, work hard, and catch your dream."
Catchings also has the distinction of having spent part of her childhood in Italy with Kobe Bryant, when their fathers -- Harvey Catchings and Joe Bryant, former teammates with the Philadelphia 76ers -- were playing for rival teams in Italy.
"To Kobe and the Bryants," she said, "this truly has been a basketball storybook ending."
Catchings' speech was followed by acceptances for the late Patrick Baumann, the longtime FIBA secretary general who died from a heart attack in 2018; two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich; and college coach Kim Mulkey, before Duncan took the stage ahead of Vanessa Bryant and Jordan.
Accompanied by San Antonio Spurs Hall of Famer David Robinson, and with his only NBA head coach, Gregg Popovich, who skipped the Spurs' Saturday afternoon game against the Phoenix Suns, Duncan -- whose famously stoic demeanor followed him throughout his great career -- admitted he'd never been more nervous than he was Saturday.
"I will try to get through this," the 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-Defensive Team and 15-time All-NBA selection said with a smile. "This is the most nervous I have ever been in my life. I've been through Finals, through Game 7s, and this officially is the most nervous I've ever been in my life. I've been pacing in my room all day, so let's see what we get."
He began by thanking Robinson, with whom he won two of his five championships with the Spurs, for showing him how to be a pro. Like Garnett, Duncan also thanked his fellow NBA inductees for making him better.
"People always ask, 'What did he tell you? What did he show you?'" Duncan said of Robinson, before adding, with a laugh: "I don't remember one thing we sat down and talked about specifically.
"But what he did was he was a consummate pro, he was an incredible father, he was an incredible person, and he showed me how to be a good teammate, a great person to the community, all those things. Not by sitting there and telling me how to do it, but by being that."
Duncan also thanked his parents, William and Ione, and joked they had a combined "zero basketball knowledge" between them.
"But they taught me about the game more than anyone else," Duncan said. "You heard the mantra that my mom instilled in me -- good, better, best, never let it rest until your good is better and your better is your best -- they told me, and made me, have pride in everything I did."
He then discussed his remarkable journey, from not picking up a basketball until he was 14 years old to earning a scholarship to Wake Forest by playing a pickup game at a court near the hotel where his eventual college coach, Dave Odom, stayed.
"I have no idea how I played, but I played well enough that he offered me a scholarship," Duncan said. "He saw something in me, and he took a chance on this kid from the [U.S. Virgin] Islands. Thank you, Coach O, thank you for seeing something in me that I didn't see at the time."
Duncan went through his career, highlighting many of his teammates, before eventually settling on two fixtures of so much of his time in San Antonio, teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- both of whom were in attendance.
"To look to your left and look to your right and have the same guys there year in and year out is unbelievable," he said. "It's a blessing beyond what I can put into words. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, I can't wait to see you guys up here and for me to not be up here. It was an honor sharing the court with you guys. Thank you for your friendship, thank you for your brotherhood, thank you for all of the experiences that we shared on that court."
Then, after choking up while talking about his wife and children, Duncan finally turned his attention to Popovich, whom Duncan joked would be angry he talked about him at all.
"I don't want to talk about him. He's going to get mad at me if I talk about him," Duncan said.
"The standard you set ... you showed up after I got drafted, you came to my island, you sat with my friends, my family, you talked with my dad. I thought that was normal. It's not. You're an exceptional person.
"Thank you for teaching me about basketball but, beyond that, teaching me that it's not all about basketball. It's about what's going on in the world, your family ... just, for everything. Thank you for being the amazing human being that you are."
ESPN's Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.