Lakers’ Rob Pelinka ‘heartbroken’ Kobe Bryant can’t receive Hall of Fame honor in person


The announcement made Rob Pelinka happy. It also made the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager sad.

No one was surprised the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame named Kobe Bryant on Saturday as one of the inductees of this year’s class. It became inevitable Bryant would become a first-ballot Hall of Famer after ending his NBA career nearly four years ago as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer, having accumlated five NBA championships, four All-Star MVPs, two Finals MVPs and one regular-season MVP. No one ever envisioned, however, that Bryant would not be alive to accept the award.

“It was a moment that was full of mixed emotion,” Pelinka said Wednesday on a Zoom call. “I think all of us are heartbroken that he couldn’t be there to receive that honor in person. But I have a level of confidence he’s with us in spirit and still is celebrating that.”

Pelinka has wrestled with strong grief ever since Kobe and Gianna Bryant died with seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. Pelinka lost Kobe, whom he considered his best friend after working as his agent for the latter part of his 20-year career. Pelinka lost Gianna, who was his goddaughter and a friend of his son (Durham) and daughter (Emery). When he spoke at Bryant’s memorial, Pelinka spent most of the time channeling his inner grief into sharing what he admired about Bryant.

One of many qualities Pelinka admired about Bryant: how he relied on relentless optimism and determination to fight through adversity. He cannot help but wonder what guidance Bryant would offer with processing the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“A friend like Kobe is especially missed,” Pelinka said. “If you were on a night’s journey with him and a huge fire-breathing dragon ended up in the pathway ahead, he would say, 'OK, this is why this is good right now. We’re going to meet this challenge and here’s how we’re going to get around it and here’s how we’re going to defeat it.’ ”

To be clear, a person’s will cannot defeat COVID-19. Only a vaccine can eliminate it. Only social distancing can flatten the curve. But Pelinka brought up Bryant’s influence because it still has shaped his worldview on problems big and small.

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Pelinka stressed he mostly remains concerned about the victims of COVID-19, the healthcare workers and those that have lost their job. Pelinka also expressed optimism the NBA will still salvage the season, and that the Lakers could minimize any hiccups with returning to the court. But the Lakers are also wrestling with the reality that the NBA might cancel its season and deny them a chance to win an NBA title for the first time in 10 years.

“I’m going to look at 2020, not just in terms of the loss of Kobe, but just in general,” Pelinka said. “I think some of these hard times we’ll have to grow through to get stronger because of them and just hold on to the future hope.”

One thing at least remains certain: Bryant will be part of this year’s Hall of Fame class.

Inevitably, that has sparked more conversation on the Bryant-Michael Jordan comparisons as well as where Bryant ranks among all-time greats. Bryant had admitted he remained obsessed with both winning championships and becoming the league’s best player. He sought satisfaction in winning one-on-one battles and outlasting his contemporaries.

Pelinka argued that Bryant’s legacy reflected something more substantive. Bryant had often reached out to star players with questions on varying X’s and O’s, including Jordan, Magic Johnson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Bryant then became gracious toward sharing that with the next generation’s star players.

“He was one of the players, I think, that led the charge of really reaching out to all-time greats to try to collect wisdom and advice,” Pelinka said of Bryant. “He was one of the first players, I think, to really, really tap in to getting knowledge from the all-time greats and to be inspired by them. And to think, now that a part of him will live in the Hall of Fame, a part of his spirit will always be there. The inspiration flips I think from those type of players inspiring him to now him being an inspiration to all of them and to all of us.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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