Kobe, KG, Duncan and the recession into the past
Class of 2020 inductee Kevin Garnett speaks during the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement ceremony at Mohegan Sun Arena. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

By the time players get to the Hall of Fame, it’s all been said. The sentiment turns sepia on the tongue. We were with Tim Duncan when he arrived almost fully formed, finished fifth in the MVP voting in his rookie year. Awards and titles accrued steadily from there, over 19 years, and every few he defeated some optimistic reporter who tried to make him seem interesting. Kevin Garnett’s career and personality had more dimension. An all-time defender and all-time MF’er, he played his best ball in Minnesota anchoring largely mediocre teams, then late in his prime found an organization to match his ability and ambition in Boston. Explaining Kobe Bryant is like explaining Disney—the corporation or the man. He was brilliant and domineering and competitive and embarrassing and phony and monstrous and manipulative and undeniable and fascinating and strange. From the time it was apparent he was special until the day of his early death, and even up to now, we’ve been reckoning with all that he was.

Induction into the Hall marks a definite recession into the past. The guys who go in precede the current crop of players by a generation or several, depending on your definition of the term, and their accomplishments have begun to acquire the smell of warehoused memorabilia. The youngest among us source their greatness secondhand, hear from the older ones memories they can’t fully internalize. I’m getting old myself. I’ve gone back and watched Jordan games that happened when I was little, Magic and Bird clashes that happened before I was born. Certain energies emerge, aesthetics travel intact across time, but it remains on some level illegible. An essential aspect of sports, the warmth of its blood, is an of-the-moment immediacy that doesn’t sustain. The broader context surrounding individual contests is nigh impossible to wrap your head around, if you’re looking back. It's the difference between reading about history and living it. You had to be there is a frustrating response to any inquiry, but if you want to get Larry Bird, you did in fact have to be there. Everything else is learning about what you can’t touch. 

I watched the speeches, which were pretty boring, even Vanessa Bryant’s pseudo-eulogy. That’s alright; the profundity of these people is contained in what happened on the court, and even the most talented writers and storytellers tend to become stiff and platitudinal in the face of an honor as total as a Hall of Fame induction is. What do you say other than thank you and this is incredible and thank you again? (For that matter, what does a widow say about her late husband, who was both larger than life and her life partner?) Maybe you’ve got an anecdote; maybe it’s halfway good.

The word immortality gets thrown around a lot at these types of events. (Not this year in particular, as it would be in poor taste, but we know we’re speaking figuratively.) I’ve always wondered what that does for the people who have attained it. Duncan clearly didn’t care, Garnett aged into a certain appreciation of his place in history, and Kobe was focused on it almost singularly throughout his career, but he’s not here to answer any questions about it. Does the water taste any different? Every story I’ve ever encountered about a highly ambitious man contains the same beat: It gets quiet for a minute, and it’s like they haven’t done anything at all. The pursuit is the thing, the fulfilling act. The fulfillment itself doesn’t last a long time. 

Filmmaker Brian De Palma has said that directors tend to do their most significant work in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Architecture is widely understood as an old person’s profession, a craft that for whatever reason takes many decades to learn and learn to break the rules of. Athletes peak at, what, 28? 31? And it’s all over by age 40, at the latest. Hall of Famers tend to be guys who stuck around for an extraordinary amount of time—they’ve got those dauntingly large rectangles of stats on their Basketball Reference pages—but barring a sudden tragedy like Kobe’s, they’ve got the whole second half of a normal person’s career to live through, where they can’t do the work that’s defined them since at least their high school days. Though they’re rich and beloved, and could have it a lot worse, I wonder if they sometimes feel like they’re killing time, waiting to go back into a room that won’t open again.

There are Hall of Famers playing now, ones who need only retire and wait three years to breach the gates, trying to expand their legacies in these upcoming playoffs. We’re still figuring out where they rank in the hierarchy of legends, but they’re definitely there; they’ve got a seat at the table. James Harden doesn’t seem to care, Kevin Durant can’t stop arguing with people about his choices and LeBron James has been self-consciously constructing his myth since he was playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary. No matter their levels of anxiety about what other people make of them, they still have agency, and if that agency isn’t complete—well, it is a relief to still be able to play ball, move around the court and influence games in their profound ways. There will, frighteningly soon, be a time when they are no longer active and only remembered, slipping into the past tense and from the comprehension of new basketball fans who struggle to understand them. 

Behind that lectern, occasionally nervously glancing over his shoulder at David Robinson, I thought Tim Duncan looked puzzled and happy. This is nice, he seemed to be saying, but it’s not exactly what I’d like to be doing.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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