Vanessa Bryant's remarkable strength ushers Kobe into the Hall of Fame

Michael Jordan, let, kisses head of Vanessa Bryant, widow of Kobe Bryant, after Bryant, represented by his wife, was enshrined with the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame class Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Uncasville, Conn. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Kobe Bryant was always going somewhere. To the rim, to the Finals, even to the Oscars. It was a life that often appeared more cinematic than non-fiction.

But no imagination of that cinematic life ever had it playing out this way. A posthumous induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame after a helicopter crash claimed his life along with eight others, including one of his daughters, Gianna. Since that nauseating day in January 2020, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe's wife and Gianna's mother, has publicly and privately grieved the unthinkable.

With the world watching, time after time she has gathered a strength, sensitivity and courage she never should have had to find out she possessed. On Saturday, when it came time to welcome Kobe into the Hall of Fame, she did it again.

"I used to always avoid praising my husband in public because I felt he got enough praise from his fans around the world and someone had to bring him back to reality," Vanessa said. "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 right now, arms folded, saying 'Isn't this some s—.'

"He's still winning. I wish my husband was here to accept this incredible award. He and Gigi deserve to be here to witness this. Gigi would be so proud to watch her daddy get enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame."

Vanessa and Kobe met in the summer of 1999. She was an unassuming Orange County teenager who'd been recruited to appear in videos for Snoop Dogg's hip-hop trio Tha Eastsidaz, he was a barely-in-his-20s burgeoning NBA star trying to launch a side career in music that would never get far. They announced their engagement at her 18th birthday party and were married in April 2001.

Several lifetimes worth of moments filled the years they were able to share. They became parents to four daughters, Gianna, Natalia, Bianka and Capri. They celebrated nights where crowds chanted his name, or confetti rained from the ceiling, or when black tuxes were needed.

"There will never be anyone like Kobe. He was special, he was humble -- off the court -- but bigger than life," Vanessa said.

But there was a time that Kobe and Vanessa almost didn't make it through, too. Felony sexual assault charges against Kobe, stemming from rape allegations levied by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado, that were eventually dropped after a prolonged trial. A miscarriage. A divorce filing.

“We were expecting,” Kobe said years later, without directly referencing the Colorado case, in the documentary Muse. “Expecting our second child during that time and there was just so much stress. She actually, she — we actually miscarried. I have a real hard time dealing with that ‘cause I felt like it was just my fault.”

Vanessa's presence near the bench at Los Angeles Lakers games became rarer and, after 10 years of marriage, she filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

Public comments on their relationship were scarce. But the end, ultimately, was premature. In January of 2013, the couple announced they'd reconciled.

"Things are never perfect, but through love, you continue to persevere, and you move through them, you move through them," Kobe said during a conversation with former football player Lewis Howes. "And then through that storm, a beautiful sun emerges, and inevitably, another storm comes. And guess what? You ride that one out, too."

Bryant's basketball career was spent doing just that: grinding, persevering, doing what he truly loved.

The accolades tell that story. A five-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP, 18-time NBA all-star, MVP of the 2008 season, a man who was capable of dropping 81 points and have it somehow not be the crowning achievement of his career.

"Kobe was on a different level, he never took shortcuts when it came to basketball," Vanessa said. "He gave this game his all. He played through injury after injury, to name a few: he had IVs administered during halftimes to play through food poisoning and the flu, he played with a broken nose, he had a broken finger and had it snapped back in place just enough to finish the game. He also taught himself how to play with his left hand while his finger healed, he even swished two free throws with a torn Achilles and walked off the court on his own."

That moment was vivid for Vanessa. She remembered reassuring Natalia and Gianna that Kobe would be okay. That this injury would be like all those injuries and daddy would be okay. But it wasn't.

As Kobe walked into the tunnel, he didn't give her a wink or blow a kiss her way. He was just worried.

A more reasonable player would have retired when the MRI came back. Instead, Kobe kept going, spending his final seasons fighting to recapture some semblance of the player he used to be, defying Father Time, defying what his body was surely telling him, too.

"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 favourite player play," Vanessa said, throwing a well-timed look at Michael Jordan, who was on stage alongside her as the presenter for Kobe's enshrinement. "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 sections that saved up to watch him play, the kids with the same excitement he once had."

Kobe was always going somewhere. To the arena with his dad to watch the game he loved, to rehab sessions so he could suit up despite another injury, to wherever his daughters needed him to be so he could, as Vanessa put it, pull off his most cherished accomplishment: "Being the very best Girl Dad."

Now he's gone, though. There won't be a next for any of those moments. No game he'll sit courtside with Gianna to watch, no red carpet he'll attend with Vanessa. But legacies linger. Memories, highlights of all the game-winners and all the near-misses, stories of the workouts before sunrise, soundbites and speeches.

Leaving something bigger than basketball behind was his goal by the time his career ended. Vanessa, in her closing words, wrapped her arms around just how much that legacy encompasses.

"Dear Kobe, thank you for being the best husband and father you could possibly be. Thank you for growing and learning from your own mistakes. 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 daughters, Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri.

"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 loving me enough to last lifetimes, in every lifetime, I choose you.

"To our girls. Natalia and Gianna, thank you for sacrificing so much time away from daddy so that he could focus on being the best at everything he set his mind to do. Bianka and Capri, I'm so happy you're here to see this tonight. Daddy was incredible. He loves you girls so very much.

"Congratulations, baby. All of your hard work and sacrifices 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. 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."

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