After suffering devastating ACL and Achilles injuries, Klay Thompson missed the entirety of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. He was stuck on the sidelines for 941 days before returning to the court on Jan. 9, and he eventually re-established himself as a core piece of the Warriors' championship rotation.
What motivated Thompson to keep grinding through the rehabilitation process? It turns out the five-time All-Star looked to one of the NBA’s greatest players for inspiration.
Thompson won the ESPY award for Best Comeback Athlete at Wednesday night’s show, and during his acceptance speech, he explained why the late Kobe Bryant was such an important figure in his life. He also paid tribute to Kobe’s daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, who died in the same helicopter crash as her father more than two years ago.
“The best memories I have growing up down here in Southern California are going to Staples [Center] with my father,” Thompson said. “I had a privileged life. He was a commentator for the Lakers, and I would go to every game early just to watch Kobe do his thing.
“I would like to thank the Bryant family because — I don’t know if Vanessa is out there watching, but to Vanessa and her three beautiful girls, we think of Kobe and Gigi every day. I read [Kobe’s book] ‘Mamba Mentality’ every day during rehab. Those are the best memories of my life, watching him play. He inspired me to be the athlete I am today.”
"He inspired me to be the athlete I am today."— ESPN (@espn) July 21, 2022
Klay thanks Kobe and Gigi in his ESPYS acceptance speech 🙏 pic.twitter.com/2q1CahEXPY
Indeed, Vanessa was watching. Bryant’s wife shared a video of Thompson’s speech on Instagram and congratulated him for winning the award.
“You’re a class act,” Vanessa wrote. “Thank you for your support and love for Kobe, my Gigi and our family. Thank you for always including my Gigi when you think of Kobe. Congratulations.”
Vanessa Bryant shared some words of appreciation to Klay via IG 🙏 pic.twitter.com/4CMfJB0rJv— TheWarriorsTalk (@TheWarriorsTalk) July 21, 2022
And just as Kobe inspired Thompson, the four-time NBA champion is now inspiring the next generation.
Thompson recently gave Make-A-Wish fan Joseph Tagaban one of his most prized possessions: a photo signed by Bryant. Tagaban, a 15-year-old from Alaska who had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, was granted his wish to meet his favorite player.
After nine months of treatment for a rare form of cancer, Joseph Tagaban knew what he wanted for his wish: to meet @KlayThompson.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 20, 2022
The @Warriors' star made that wish come true as Klay gave Joseph an unforgettable day 👏@MakeAWish | @MakeAWishAKWA pic.twitter.com/cmrSTqOgWS
“I just know he’s going through a hard time and I know he’ll cherish that photo,” Thompson told The Mercury News. “Just such a special photo of mine, and I decided to hook him up. He’s a great young man. He deserves it.”