This long-awaited Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend will be largely about Kobe Bryant.
Of course, it won’t be solely about Bryant, nor would he have wanted it that way. If he were here, he’d almost certainly be raving about the women going into the Hall this weekend with him.
Bryant was a huge proponent and supporter of women’s basketball, and that wasn’t just because his daughter Gianna — one of the eight people who perished alongside him in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020 — was coming into her own as a standout young player with a bright future. He made no secret about how much he respected the women’s game, even telling CNN in one of the final interviews he gave, just 11 days before his death, that WNBA stars like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne could keep up with NBA players.
Make no mistake: The three women who would have shared the stage with him Saturday night would have had his respect.
New LSU women’s coach Kim Mulkey has three national championships from her just-ended stint at Baylor. Indiana Fever vice president of basketball operations and general manager Tamika Catchings has four Olympic gold medals. Barbara Stevens won more than 1,000 games as a coach. They’ll all get their time on the stage Saturday night in Uncasville, Connecticut — the Hall of Fame ceremony isn’t at the Hall of Fame this year because of virus-related concerns — and they deserve far more than to be thought of as the “others” in this class.
“He made the WNBA cool,” said Catchings, whose friendship with Bryant dated back to when they were little kids and their fathers played pro ball in Italy together. “He made it cool for him and Gigi to be courtside. You could always see him teaching her different things that were going on on the court. He’d lean over and they’d start evaluating and breaking down plays.”
Every incoming Hall of Famer is presented for enshrinement by another Hall of Famer, and the women in this class got some seriously big-time names to fill those roles.
Catchings will be presented by NBA champion Alonzo Mourning and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. Stevens will be flanked by Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, longtime rivals who’ll become teammates for a night to pay tribute to the former Bentley coach who won the NCAA Division II national coach of the year award five times. And Mulkey is getting presented by none other than Michael Jordan, who somehow was her second choice for the job.
“Let me tell you how that transpired,” Mulkey said this week. “Coach Leon Barmore is in the Naismith and he was my coach at Louisiana Tech, my mentor and he worked three years with me at Baylor. I asked him and he can’t present me because of health issues. So, Michael and I played in the ’84 Olympics together and I said, ‘Let Michael do it’ and he was gracious in accepting that. That’s how that came about.”
Mulkey sent Jordan a note, thanking her fellow 1984 Los Angeles Olympics gold medalist for his willingness to be with her for the moment. Jordan will also present Bryant on Saturday night, and is likely to play a role in whatever tribute the Hall comes up with to commemorate the life of the five-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers who he considered a little brother.
“I’m very respectful of who Michael is and respectful of the honor that he would do that for me,” Mulkey said.
Stevens retired from Bentley last year after 34 seasons at the Waltham, Massachusetts school and 44 years as a college coach. She won 1,058 games; the only women’s college coaches ever to win more are Tara VanDerveer, Auriemma and Pat Summitt. Vivian Stringer is 12 wins shy of Stevens’ win total; it’s going to be many, many years before another women’s coach even gets close to that number.
“You look at all those coaches. They are huge names in the sport,” Stevens told The Associated Press in 2018 before her milestone 1,000th victory. “I don’t see the connection with me and them. I found my niche and I don’t need any limelight. I don’t need anything like that. What I’m trying to do in a small way is create a program that can be successful and that’s it.”
Bryant would have loved that approach, too.
He could champion women’s basketball and the WNBA sometimes without saying a word. The best-selling piece of WNBA merchandise is an orange hooded sweatshirt with the league’s logo emblazoned on the chest; sales of that hoodie started going wild when Bryant wore it while attending a Lakers-Dallas game with Gianna in December 2019. After his death, sales soared again.
He worked out with WNBA players. He mentored them. The luckiest ones had his number. They would get random texts, video messages, good-luck wishes.
“I respect greatness,” Bryant told AP in a 2016 interview. “I respect the ones who are trying to be great even more, the ones not afraid of the work.”
Catchings, Mulkey and Stevens are part of what might be the most star-studded Hall of Fame class ever: Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan as the NBA players with 11 combined championships and 48 All-Star nods going in together, along with two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich, three-time Final Four coach Eddie Sutton and former FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann — one of the best leaders international basketball has ever known. Baumann died in 2018 and Sutton died last year, about a month and a half after getting the word that he was selected for enshrinement.