NEW YORK – Kobe Bryant’s annual Garden variety visit last Friday triggered me to re-examine the draft of 1996. Many people have gone straight from high school to Hollywood and become overnight sensations . . . after countless years of dejection and rejection. Kobe actually morphed into a Lakers’ legend almost on cue.
Jerry West was not the sole team executive who recognized his potential greatness, but he was the only one prepared to risk his reputation on a 17-year-old. All it took were two workouts, one, really.
In the second, defensive demon Michael Cooper, who had just retired, saw Kobe “kick his fanny and not want to stop,” West recounted the other day. “He wanted more. That’s how competitive he was even then.
“I said ‘The hell with this’. Drafting kids at that time was not in vogue (Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale had taken a plunge on Kevin Garnett at No. 5 in 1995). Teams wanted a name, someone who can’t miss, but I knew then and there Kobe was a player for the ages.”
So, West futilely offered Vlade Divac to a dozen teams. The Cavaliers owned the No. 12 slot. GM Wayne Embry passed on the chance to snatch Kobe or get L.A.’s starting center for the privilege of picking Ukraine muscle man Vitaly Potapenko (Wright State).
Embry is forever telling West, “Can you believe I took Vitaly Potapenko!”
Finally, the Charlotte Hornets agreed to select Kobe at No. 13 and exchange him for the Lakers’ starting center; the official announcement didn’t take place until two week later in early July when a bigger salary cap allowed L.A. to maneuver and sign free agent Shaquille O’Neal.
“There was nothing wrong with Divac as many teams thought,” West said. “It was a case of everything being right about Kobe. He had a burning desire to do something only the great ones do. There’s something internally that drives and motivates them and he had that locked-in-look.
“What I admire most about him is how tough he is, how he’ll play through things that others won’t or can’t. That tells you what he really is. Fans don’t get cheated when they pay to see him play, that’s for damn sure!”
Kobe used to work out at the Sporting Club in Philadelphia, the summer before his senior year. Some of the area’s NBA guys -Jerry Stackhouse, Doug Overton, Tim Legler, Rick Mahorn, etc. — played against him every day.
John Nash was the Washington GM at the time. He didn’t witness the workouts, but checked with some of those guys and was told Kobe was excelling in that setting.
“I called John Lucas one day and inquired as to how Stackhouse looked,” Nash recalled. “The 76ers took him with the third pick earlier that summer. Luke replied, ‘He was the second best shooting guard in the gym.’ When I asked who was best, he said, ‘Kobe.’ “
Supposedly, the first time Stackhouse played against Kobe, he asked him where he went to school. “Lower Merion.”
The UNC star, who didn’t return an email request to comment about their battles, allegedly asked, “Is that Division II or Division III?”
In Kobe’s senior year, Nash would scout Kerry Kittles at Villanova practices and then watch Kobe play about 10 km away. At the end of the season, he was let go by Washington, but then hired by John Calipari, who had just joined the Nets as coach and president.
“I started there about two weeks before the ’96 draft and Kobe had already worked out for them twice. I was delighted to learn Calipari really liked him. I echoed John’s feelings and we arranged to bring him in a third time, which sealed the deal.”
The draft that year was at the Meadowlands, and on the night before the draft, Nash and Calipari had dinner with Joe and Pam Bryant.
“John asked Joe what he expected for his son. He said he thought Kobe would start as a rookie and be an All-Star in his second season.
Kobe, who supplanted Shaq last week as the fifth-highest scorer in NBA history, started by the end of his rookie year (7.6 points, 41.7 FG%) and made the All-Star team the next year when he more or less doubled his minutes (2000) and scoring average (15.4).
“We went to bed that night determined to select Kobe with the eighth pick,” Nash remembered.
The next day, Calipari and Nash had lunch with Nets’ owner Joe Taub. He expressed concern about taking a high school kid, who might need several years to be ready and then possibly bolt in three years after becoming an unrestricted free agent.
“Nevertheless, we arrived back at the office around 2 p.m. still planning to select Kobe,” Nash recollected. “Calipari had final say and although Joe Taub had been instrumental in bringing John to New Jersey, Kobe was still the choice. That’s when the spit hit the fan.
“Kobe’s representative called me. Even though Arn Tellem had been excited to know we were going to select his client, he now claimed Kobe did not want to be in Jersey and might not sign. I knew he was bluffing about signing. He had already renounced his collegiate eligibility by hiring an agent and Europe was no longer paying big money.
“At the same time, Kobe placed a call to Calipari and basically said the same thing,” Nash continued. “Why the sudden change of heart? I told John I believed someone behind us was angling to get Kobe. West previously offered us Vlade for No. 8. In the meantime, David Falk, who represented Kittles, had become aware of the situation and he called Calipari and pressured him to select his client.
“Calipari was concerned Falk would hold a grudge if we passed over Kittles,” said Nash.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.