Any basketball fan knows seemingly all there is to know about Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
There is no mystery: They were all great for an incredibly long time by NBA standards, putting together careers that couldn’t be ignored and legacies that won't be forgotten.
They came on to the scene almost at once during the mid-1990s and stayed almost forever. On Saturday they will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in a ceremony that was pushed back nearly nine months due to the pandemic.
For fans they provided a little bit of everything, from Bryant’s relentless drive and craftsmanship to Duncan’s steady excellence to Garnett’s manic energy and shape-shifting skill set.
For Jermaine O’Neal, they provided a standard that was almost impossible to reach.
“Tim and Kevin and Kobe, those are special talents, bro,” said O’Neal, the one-time Toronto Raptor who played all of 18 seasons against the Hall-of-Fame trio, and who shared all six of his own all-star appearances with them, too.
Joining them in one of the most accomplished classes ever is Tamika Catchings, the 10-time WNBA all-star and four-time Olympic gold medalist; Kim Mulkey the ground-breaking coach with three NCAA championships – and counting – to her resumé; Rudy Tomjanovich, who led the Houston Rockets to consecutive NBA titles as a coach and Team USA to gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 after a distinguished playing career along with NCAA coaches Eddie Sutton and Barbara Stevens, and longtime FIBA executive Patrick Bauman.
The ceremony is scheduled for Saturday night and will be notable for – among other reasons – what promises to be a deeply emotional moment when Vanessa Bryant accepts on behalf of her husband, who died along with their 13-year-old daughter Gigi and seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.
For the NBA players being inducted, it represents the final honour for one of the league’s greatest generations.
— Basketball HOF (@Hoophall) May 15, 2021
Bryant, Garnett and Duncan – each different, each great but each sharing durability, enduring excellence and the desire to play until the wheels fell off – have careers significant enough that you can tell almost any story you want through them.
Individually, the numbers are staggering as can only be expected. Dominance is the price of admission to the Hall, and the trio of stars that bridged the era between Jordan and LeBron have enough equity in the game to pay twice the going rate.
Consider: Collectively they represent 39 All-NBA Teams and 39 All-Defensive Teams. Additionally, they were voted to 48 all-star games, 25 times were among the top-five in MVP voting, earned four MVP awards and led teams to 11 titles in their 60 combined seasons.
But they represent something more to O’Neal and many of his peers. Like Bryant and Garnett, O’Neal was part of the NBA’s ‘preps-to-pros’ generation. He was taken 17th in the legendary 1996 draft where Bryant went 13th in a class that now features four Hall-of-Famers and 23 players that had careers of 10 years or more.
The movement was sparked by Garnett, who was taken 5th in the 1995 draft and went on to play 21 seasons, was recognized as the league MVP in 2004 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, the same year he led the Boston Celtics to a title.
Not bad for a player that many skeptics believed wasn’t ready for the ‘No Boys Allowed’ league.
Watching the draft at home in South Carolina, O’Neal told his brother he was going to do the same thing.
“[Garnett] is the grandfather who really opened up that door, who really brought a huge microscope to high schoolers, giving guys like Kobe, myself and many others, that opportunity,” says O’Neal, who is putting together a business career to rival his on-court success. Together with fellow prep-to-pros legend, former Raptor and Hall-of-Famer Tracy McGrady, O’Neal has opened Seven1 Sports and Entertainment to represent future NBA players. He also owns a multi-sport athletic training facility in Dallas.
Garnett paved the way.
“Guys had done it before [Moses Malone jumped from high school to the NBA in 1974] but with Kevin it was a real thing,” says O’Neal. “When he did it, he was on Sports Illustrated and everything. So it is no surprise to me that his big day is coming up.
“He’s been who he’s been for a long time,” says O’Neal, who shares South Carolina roots with Garnett. “High energy, super talented, ultimate competitor.
“He’s one of the best to ever do it and I’m very happy for him.”
O’Neal began competing against Bryant before they were even in high school and competed for the No. 1 ranking in their graduating class right until their senior year.
They remained friends throughout. When they were each young in the league Bryant’s mom would make him dinner when O’Neal visited Los Angeles with the Portland Trail Blazers. He remains close with Bryant’s sisters to this day.
— Basketball HOF (@Hoophall) May 15, 2021
And the five-time NBA champion Bryant the world came to know isn’t far removed from the person he met before high school.
“He was just a guy who was different. He was all about basketball. Nothing else mattered,” says O’Neal. “There was that story about Allen [Iverson] and Kobe being at dinner and Allen telling Kobe he was about to go to the club and Kobe saying, ‘I’m about to go to the gym.’”
"Kobe was always like that, even when we were growing up. We’d be at all McDonald’s All-American Game and the Adidas games and the big tournaments and he was very friendly, very charismatic, but he made it clear: He was going back to the room to watch tape of Michael Jordan. We’d be like, ‘Man, no one is ever going to be Michael Jordan.’ And I think he’s the closest to Michael Jordan there’s ever been.”
The practice of drafting players straight from high school ended in 2005 after the NBA and the Players’ Association amended the Collective Bargaining Agreement so that players have be 19 years old and one year removed from their high school class. There are discussions about drafting 18-year-olds again, something O’Neal is in favour of, citing the successes of the likes of himself, Bryant, Garnett, McGrady and several others.
“We live in America,” says O’Neal, who earned nearly $170 million over his career which ended in 2014. “We’re allowed to choose our livelihood. Think about what’s going on in this world. I can go fight a full-fledge war at 18 but you can’t choose to play basketball at 18? It makes no sense to me.
“To me the success of a person on and off the court is solely due to their mentality and the want and need and will to be successful. It’s very simple. There are some people that don’t have to go to college, and can learn on the job even if they aren’t quite ready.”
Duncan stands out from Garnett and Bryant in that he spent four seasons at Wake Forest even though he would have been a lottery pick after his freshman season. The native of the island of St. Croix was taken first overall in 1997 and holds the distinction of being the last four-year senior to be taken first in the draft, a mark in history that may never be erased.
But he shares with his fellow Hall inductees a mindset that translated into a career that yielded five NBA titles, two MVP awards and a place among the top-10 players of all time in the eyes of many.
“Tim was a champion’s champion, if you will,” says O’Neal. “If there was a face beside the word in the dictionary, his face would be under ‘champion’s champion.’
“It’s interesting with Kevin and Tim. Kevin was going to let you know everything about what was going on in a game. He’s going to scream, yell, talk to you, whatever it may be. It’s easy to see how he’s feeling. Tim was the guy who put on his hard hat, didn’t say much – the rare yell – but it was more, ‘I know what my job is and I’m going to do it better than you do your job.’
“He’s the one guy he was very difficult to guard because he had so much. His tool belt had so many things on it. You couldn’t really take anything away from him, he always had a counter.”
After a career competing against three league legends, O’Neal says he’s going to enjoy the experience of watching them be honoured for careers that helped shape his own.
“These guys had huge impacts on me as a player and a person,” says O’Neal. “And to see those guys all go in the Hall it’s nothing but love and appreciation for the contributions they made to the game but also to the players in the game.
“It’s just unfortunate that Kobe can’t be here to enjoy that moment. But people like myself will be celebrating him.”