For 13 days in the summer of 1996, Kobe Bryant's professional basketball future belonged to Charlotte.
At the time, Bryant was a 17-year-old prodigy, having decided to jump to the NBA after graduating from Lower Merion High near Philadelphia.
When the Charlotte Hornets made Bryant the 13th pick in the 1996 draft, a buzz rippled through the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., where the event was held. It was an unexpected choice by a team that desperately needed a big man.
But Bryant was never going to be a Charlotte Hornet. The Hornets wanted Los Angeles Lakers center Vlade Divac, and to get him they agreed to draft Bryant and trade him for Divac.
Bryant was drafted on June 26 and, after nearly two weeks of threats and negotiations, Divac agreed to be traded to Charlotte on July 8.
With four NBA championships, one MVP award, one Finals MVP and a place among the NBA's all-time greats, Bryant returns to Charlotte tonight to face the Bobcats in what might have been his basketball home.
"It looks like hell now, but you know how that is," says Bob Bass, who made the deal with the Lakers when he was the Hornets' vice president.
From preps to pros
In 1996, NBA teams weren't in the habit of drafting players straight out of high school. One year earlier, Mauldin, S.C., native Kevin Garnett had become the exception, going straight from Farragut Academy High (Ill.) to the NBA.
Bryant would be next. The son of former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, Kobe was different from his peers. Fluent in Italian from having spent part of his childhood in Italy where his father played professionally, and with a skill set that reminded some of a young Michael Jordan, Bryant had already been signed by the star-making William Morris Agency before the draft.
When Bryant mentioned he didn't have a date for his high school prom, pop star Brandy volunteered to go with him and did. Had he gone to college, Bryant later said he would have played at Duke for coach Mike Krzyzewski. Instead, he decided to enter the NBA draft.
By 1996, the Hornets were in a state of transition. Center Alonzo Mourning had been traded to Miami for Glen Rice and Matt Geiger. Larry Johnson was on the verge of being traded to the New York Knicks for Anthony Mason.
The team was still selling out every home game – the streak would eventually reach 364 games before ending in November 1997 – but the business of professional basketball had changed the dynamic.
Allan Bristow had resigned as coach after the team went 41-41 and missed the NBA playoffs in the 1995-96 season. Former Boston Celtics great Dave Cowens was hired.
The Hornets had one of the shortest rosters in the NBA after Mourning left, making it imperative they find a big man. With the 13th and 16th picks in the first round, the plan was to find a big man, then draft another guard.
"To think we were taking Kobe …" Bass says. "We had a small team and we were looking for size."
Among the big men the Hornets considered were Wright State's Vitaly Potapenko, Louisville's Samaki Walker and Memphis' Lorenzen Wright. Charlotte native Todd Fuller, a center at N.C. State, figured to be gone before the Hornets would draft.
With the 16th pick, the Hornets already had their eye on a guard – Santa Clara's Steve Nash, who had worked out with the team shortly before the draft. The Hornets had invited Bryant for a workout, but he cancelled the visit. The team had scouted Bryant twice but wanted a private workout to get a better feel for his potential.
"He wouldn't work out with us and that bothered us," Bass said. "We couldn't meet him. His agent was trying to aim him to the Lakers and they threatened us."
The Hornets got the message that if they drafted Bryant, he wouldn't play in Charlotte.
They weren't the only team to be warned off taking Bryant for their own.
The New Jersey Nets, coached by John Calipari, considered Bryant with the eighth pick but chose Villanova's Kerry Kittles after hearing a similar message.
The Philadelphia 76ers had seen Bryant play regularly but instead used the No. 1 pick to draft point guard Allen Iverson from Georgetown. Twelve teams passed on Bryant before the Hornets took him.
West was strategizing
In Los Angeles, general manager Jerry West had a grand plan for the Lakers.
He wanted Orlando center Shaquille O'Neal and planned to pursue him in free agency. O'Neal could be the player around which the Lakers would rebuild their championship legacy.
West knew no NBA team had drafted a backcourt player straight out of high school when he went to see Bryant work out at a YMCA in Los Angeles. Bryant was also scheduled to shoot a TV commercial for his new brand of adidas sneakers while in Los Angeles.
Bryant so impressed West that when he left, the former Lakers great decided he wanted to work out the teenager again.
West called former Laker Michael Cooper, who had recently retired, and asked him to work out with Bryant. Cooper had been an exceptional defensive player – former Boston Celtics star Larry Bird called him the best he ever faced – and had stayed in good shape.
In the workout, Cooper couldn't handle Bryant, who put stars in West's eyes. West left after watching the two play about 10 minutes.
"I thought you were supposed to guard him," West told Cooper on his way out, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Determined to find a way to get Bryant, West considered his options. He began pursuing trade opportunities, willing to swap players for the chance to draft Bryant before another team took him.
The Lakers owed Divac more than $8million over two seasons and he became expendable, especially with O'Neal the team's prime target.
West talked with several teams, including Milwaukee, which proposed a trade for Divac the Lakers declined. Bass heard Divac was available and called West.
With Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, working to get his client to Los Angeles, the Hornets and Lakers agreed to the draft-day deal. Bryant would become a Hornet, but only as a way to get to Los Angeles.
"We had a pre-arranged deal," Bass said.
Priority No. 1: Hornets
Bass was known for his sharp eye for talent and an ability to get equitable value in trades, but he wasn't considered a risk-taker. With Cowens taking over the team, Bass wanted to be sure the new coach had a big man to build around in the middle.
Bass believed the deal could have a double benefit for the Hornets. Adding Bryant might help convince O'Neal to sign with the Lakers, thereby getting Shaq out of Orlando in the Eastern Conference and, potentially, out of Charlotte's playoff path.
On draft night, there was the possibility another team might take Bryant before the Hornets picked 13th. On the West Coast, West worried. In Charlotte, Bass fretted.
When Cleveland chose Potapenko with the 12th pick, West is reported to have put a bottle of champagne on ice in his office. Minutes later, the Hornets picked Bryant.
Maybe it was coincidence, but Bryant wore a teal and purple necktie the night of the draft, matching the Hornets' team colors. When he met with reporters that evening, Bryant talked about what he had to do in the NBA but not much about where he would do it.
"The main thing I've got to do is prove it to myself," Bryant said. "If I try to prove it to everybody else, the pressure can be overwhelming."
Asked about playing in Charlotte, Bryant said, "I'll get to play alongside Grandmama (Larry Johnson's commercial alter-ego)."
Asked later on draft night if he was being traded to the Lakers, Bryant said, "Man, I don't know. I'm just glad to be in the NBA."
Divac initially balked, saying he would retire before he accepted the trade. The day after the draft, Tellem said he expected his client would "end up in Los Angeles" though he stopped short of demanding the Hornets trade Bryant.
Bass wondered publicly about Bryant's potential.
"He may be really good," Bass said.
One day later, with Divac still stalling the trade, Tellem was more direct when asked if Bryant might wind up playing for the Hornets.
"That is an impossibility. There are no ifs. It would not happen. He is going to be a Laker and that's the only team he's playing for," Tellem said.
There was talk that if the trade didn't go through, Bryant might play professionally in Italy for one season, then attempt to re-enter the draft.
It would take more than a week but Divac – after threatening to return to Yugoslavia – finally agreed to accept the trade to Charlotte, cementing Bryant's future in Los Angeles.
It also got Bass and the Hornets what they wanted.
"We had a chance to get Vlade Divac, an established 7-foot-2-inch center in the league," Bass said. "We won 54 games with Divac the first year and we won 51 games with him the next."
Before a Lakers game against New York in his rookie season, Bryant was asked what would have happened had the Hornets not traded him.
"I'd be a Hornet," Bryant said. "Right now I'd be watching this game on TV."
The Hornets also had the 16th pick in 1996 and they were intent on using it to supplement their backcourt. Guards Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry were getting older and the Hornets saw the draft as a way to strengthen a weak spot.
Bass wanted to use the 16th pick on Nash, a guard who was relatively unfamiliar to the Charlotte audience because of where he played collegiately. Cowens preferred Kentucky's Tony Delk to Nash.
"He's stronger than Nash, he's quicker than Nash. He's just not the point guard Nash is," Cowens said.
Nash worked out for the Hornets 12 days before the draft and impressed them team officials.
"He's very clever with the ball," Bass said then. "You can see the (John) Stockton comparison."
Phoenix, however, chose Nash with the 15th pick, leaving the Hornets to take Delk.
Early in his second season with the Hornets, Delk (who scored 53 points in a 2001 game for the Phoenix Suns) was traded along with Bogues to Golden State for B.J. Armstrong. Nash, of course, became one of the NBA's all-time great point guards.
Hindsight always works
It's easy to play what might have been with the Hornets' choice of Bryant – and the near-miss with Nash – but it was a different time.
Bryant wasn't seen in quite the same can't miss-way as LeBron James entering the NBA draft. He grew into one of the game's greatest players, but there was no guarantee of that happening in 1996.
Between them, Bryant and Nash have been named the NBA's most valuable player three times in the past six years (Nash in 2004-05 and 2005-06; Bryant in 2007-08) while helping to define the modern professional game.
In retirement in San Antonio, Bass points out that 12 teams passed on Bryant before the Hornets called his name. Six years after that draft, the Hornets had moved to New Orleans. It's easy to think what might be different had Divac refused to accept the trade and Bryant was left with Charlotte as his only option.
On paper, it looks so simple: The Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant, then traded him.
"What were they thinking?" Bass asks rhetorically.
"You had to be there."
Years pro: 14
Draft: Chosen 13th by Charlotte in the 1996 NBA draft and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Career highlights: NBA most valuable player (2007-08). … MVP of the NBA Finals (2009). … Four-time NBA champion (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009). … Averaging 25.3 points and 5.3 rebounds over his career. … In the playoffs, Bryant has averaged 30.2 points per game. … In 2006, he scored 81 points in a game, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history.
Years pro: 14
Draft: Chosen 15th by the Phoenix Suns in the 1996 NBA draft.
Career highlights: Won consecutive NBA most valuable player awards (2004-05 and 2005-06). … Has averaged 14.6 points and 8.2 a.ssists per game in his carreer. … Has playoff averages of 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds. … Ranks among the NBA's all-time leaders in 3-point percentage, free-throw shooting and a.ssists.
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