NBA Draft Flashback: How did so many teams pass on Kobe Bryant?
Well, we really like Kobe. I think he's gonna be a terrific player in the NBA. But for us, right now, where we are and what we needed, I think in the end, [the right choice] was Kerry Kittles." - Nets coach John Calipari on Draft Night, 1996.
In retrospect, that quote looks pretty bad for Calipari. But to be fair to the then-soon-to-be-ex-coach of the Nets, his team wasn't the only one that passed on Kobe Bryant in the '96 Draft. Seven teams did before them, and four did after--five if you include the one that traded him upon drafting him. Kobe was ultimately taken 13th by the Charlotte Hornets, in a pre-arranged (though ultimately difficult to consummate) deal with the Lakers, who would trade big man Vlade Divac in exchange for the Lower Merion product. 18 years later, those 12 teams still have some explaining to do for forgoing the future Hall-of-Famer
How did it happen? Well, a variety of reasons both general and specific. The biggest overarching reason was that the NBA was still wary of high schoolers going straight to the league at that point in history. Preps-to-pros phenom Kevin Garnett had broken the mold a little bit the year before, having a strong rookie season for the Timberwolves as an 18-year-old, but even Garnett had been picked just fifth - four picks behind eventual league journeyman Joe Smith - and made only second-team All-Rookie his freshman year in the bigs. Before KG, the last payer to be drafted directly from high school had been Darryl Dawkins 20 years earlier.
The other biggest reason was that 1996 was a historically loaded draft, probably more so than any class since the legendary '84 group that NBA TV just focused an entire documentary on. Five future All-Stars were drafted before Bryant (and another four after), and many players who would not end up being so decorated (Kittles, Marcus Camby, Erick Dampier) would still go on to long, successful and highly compensated careers in the Association. It was understandable that so many seemingly sure things were taken over a relatively unproven entity like Kobe.
It was a combination of these reasons that caused the Philadelphia 76ers, selecting first overall, to bypass their local product. The Sixers were enamored with Georgetown guard Allen Iverson, and - according to Bryant - only invited Kobe in pre-draft to test his speed, declaring Iverson the faster player. "I wasn’t comfortable going with a HS kid for the No. 1 pick vs. Iverson," then-GM Brad Greenberg later told Peter Vescey. Elation over landing Iverson was as such that few tears were shed in Philadelphia for the missed connection with Kobe anyway, and Iverson did go on to an MVP-winning, Hall-of-Fame-caliber career in Philly.
Six picks later, the Clippers were in less of a can't-lose scenario, but opted for the Memphis forward Lorenzen Wright over Bryant. "I had a really good workout with the Clippers," Kobe told Jimmy Kimmel in 2013. "And they told me 'This is the best workout we've ever seen...'" However, Bryant said that the Clippers still told him pre-draft that they weren't going to select him. "We want to turn things around with our organization," he recalls them saying. "And we feel like if we drafted a 17-year-old kid, the city of Los Angeles wouldn't take it seriously." Wright spent three middling seasons with the Clippers before being traded to the Hawks for future draft considerations.
At No. 8, the Nets were the first team to give Kobe serious consideration. They worked him out three times and were smitten with him, with both Calipari and GM John Nash concluding that he was the guy. They even told the Nets' then-co-owner Joe Taub as much eight hours before the draft, according to a 2011 ESPN article.
But Kobe, in conjunction with agent Arm Tellem, saw the opportunity to land in the bigger L.A. market via the Hornets' pick at No. 13, and tried to scare Calipari and Nash off him, with Tellem even threatening to have Kobe play in Italy rather than reporting to New Jersey. The Nets believed Bryant to be bluffing, but it weakened Cal's resolve a little, and a persuasive call from Kittles' agent David Falk was enough to sway the first-year coach into going with the Villanova alum as the safer pick. Kittles would go on to have a very solid career for the Nets, starting for them on their 2002 and 2003 Finals-bound teams, but Cal lasted just three seasons in New Jersey, never really living down passing on Kobe.
The next four teams in the draft all opted for size. The Mavericks already had Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson in the backcourt, though both would be dealt by the next trade deadline, and took future bust (but excellent hat-wearer) Samaki Walker at nine. The Pacers were set at shooting guard with a future-Hall-of-Famer of their own in Reggie Miller, and selected Dampier instead at No. 10. Latrell Sprewell blocked Kobe from the Warriors at No. 11 and Bobby Phills was coming off a breakout season for the Cavs at No. 12, and the teams chose to draft centers Todd Fuller and Vitaly Potapenko instead, respectively.
Picking thirteenth, the Hornets were also in need of a big man. All-Star Alonzo Mourning had been traded to Miami the previous November after turning down a contract extension, leaving Charlotte with a hole in the middle. Meanwhile, the Lakers had been calling teams up and down the draft, looking to unload incumbent veteran center Vlade Divac in order to free up minutes and cap space for big-ticket free-agent acquisition Shaquille O'Neal. The highest-drafting team to show interest in dealing for Divac was the Hornets.
The Hornets took Kobe with the 13th pick, intending to deal him immediately for Divac. Kobe put on the Hornets hat and answered Craig Sager's questions as if he was headed to Charlotte, but both player and team knew about the imminent deal with Los Angeles. But salary considerations for Shaq forced the deal to be put on hold until a bigger cap was officially announced the next month, and in the meantime, Divac temporarily halted the trade, threatening to retire rather than leave L.A., where his wife Ana was hoping to pursue an acting career.
Even during the hold-up, the Hornets never seemed to seriously consider simply keeping Bryant, who mentioned to Vescey in the first part of that 2012 NY Post article that then-coach Dave Cowens even told Kobe that they "didn't need [him] anyway" when making sure he knew the deal with the Lakers was in place. That's odd if true, considering that the starting two-guard position for the Hornets the next season would be held by a patchwork of Tony Smith, an ancient Ricky Pierce and sixth man Dell Curry - you'd think Kobe would've been something of an upgrade.
In any event, the feeling was mutual, as both Tellem and even Nike power player Sonny Vaccaro were instrumental in steering Kobe towards L.A. "He is going to be a Laker, and that's the only team he's playing for," Tellem declared with the trade in limbo. "He went down five spots to do this, to make this happen, and it will happen." Eventually, Divac relented, the trade was processed and Kobe and Shaq paired in Los Angeles, soon to dominate the basketball world on and off the court. Divac spent two decently successful seasons in Charlotte before heading back to California in free agency, becoming an All-Star with the Sacramento Kings.
It was probably fated that Kobe would end up in L.A. one way or the other, and his management certainly did their damnedest to make sure of it. But you have to think that if Kobe came around five years later--in a weaker class, and with less of a league-wide fear of preps-to-pros prodigies--he would've gone in the top five at a minimum, even with threats of a holdout. And if teams in '96 had any idea of the player Kobe would eventually become...well, Vitaly Potapenko probably wouldn't be the answer to a trivia question today, anyway.