National Basketball Association

The special bond between Hall of Fame Inductees Kobe Bryant and Tamika Catchings

May 14

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Vivid reminders of Kobe Bryant frequently pass through the calendar, even now, 16 months after his tragic death and with everything that has befallen the world since.

There is always something, an anniversary of a spectacular performance, or his birthday, or the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA title in the bubble, or just when a player, any player, catches fire in the kind of Kobe-like fashion that takes your breath away.

This weekend will be among the most meaningful though, as Bryant is formally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of a star-studded class, providing another opportunity to reflect, remember and to feel that now-familiar lump in the throat, quite possibly to be followed by a tear or two.

We all have our personal stories of witnessing Bryant’s brilliance, just like we all know where we were when that awful news came in, how we heard it, and from whom.

Tamika Catchings’ memories of Bryant date back further than those of virtually everyone outside his own family. Back to when they were children in Italy, and when basketball was virtually an afterthought.

"Soccer was our sport," WNBA legend Catchings told the Chicago Daily Herald. "We weren’t even thinking much about basketball back then."

Back in the mid-1980s, the Bryant and Catchings families would meet up, hang out and take trips together in Italy, where respective patriarchs, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and Harvey Catchings both played professionally after the end of their NBA careers.

They’d go to Rome to see the Coliseum, visit parks for ice cream, kickarounds and fun, forming the start of a friendship between 8-year-old Kobe and 7-year-old Tamika, that would last until the very end.

Catchings is among the nine inductees in the Class of 2020 this weekend, having brought an end to her own spectacular career in 2016, after 15 years with the Indiana Fever, 10 All-Star selections, a WNBA title, an NCAA championship with Tennessee, years of service as WNBA Players’ Union President, and an incredible story of having done all that despite suffering partial deafness since childhood.

For her to be part of the same induction class as Bryant is poetic and appropriate. There is only one way it could be better. 

"The main character is missing," Catchings added.

There is one heck of a collection of talent entering the Hall. There are Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan on the playing side, Eddie Sutton and Rudy Tomjanovich from the coaching ranks and former FIBA general secretary Patrick Baumann.

Bryant would surely have also been thrilled to be in the same batch as three pioneering contributors to the women’s game, which he staunchly supported and was due to be more involved in through his daughter Gigi, who died with him in the accident that claimed a total of nine lives on Jan. 26 last year.

Catchings (who will be presented by Alonzo Mourning and Dawn Staley) is to be joined by longtime Baylor (now LSU) head coach Kim Mulkey (like Bryant, presented by Michael Jordan) and coaching veteran Barbara Stevens (by Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw). 

When Catchings, now general manager of the Indiana Fever, owner of a tea shop and a passionate devotee to her Catch The Stars Foundation, retired five years back, Bryant recorded a video message by way of tribute.

"We have known each other for a very, very long time," he said. "As kids growing up we were running around Italy, running around the streets of Rome. Who would have thought we would both have the careers we have had? I am extremely proud of you, one of the all-time greatest players. Make sure you enjoy retirement. Kick back and relax."

That’s what Bryant was supposed to spend a lot longer doing. He wasn’t all over the NBA landscape anymore, preferring family time with his daughters and wife Vanessa and other ventures.

He’d spent long enough in NBA arenas, he figured. It was time to catch up on everything else. He didn’t get long enough at it, not nearly.

There is no avoiding the fact that Bryant’s entry will be the most closely-watched part of the ceremony and also be its most-awaited element. Catchings admits the emotion of it will impact her deeply, along with her own feelings of pride and honor.

Bryant’s passing doesn’t quite feel real yet. Maybe it never will.

Yet as he enters the most exclusive club in basketball, it feels right that he’ll do so alongside a group of ultimate competitors. And a friend, who was there before it all began.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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