When I look back at the Hall of Fame career of Kobe Bryant, a player who inspired me to watch, play and appreciate basketball, I am always surprised at where he was selected on Draft night in 1996. We all remember the explosive slam dunk contest that thrust him into our conciousness, the torch being passed from MJ, the Shaq and Kobe era, winning titles with Pau Gasol, the 81 point game and the man who preached and lived his “Mamba Mentality” on and off the court. However, many forget that the kid from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania who went on to become a Laker legend was actually selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets.
So, how many teams passed on the opportunity to draft Kobe in 1996? 12 teams had the opportunity to select the decorated high school star and eventually Bryant was selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets.
The 12 franchises who chose not to select Kobe were The 76ers, Raptors, Grizzlies, Bucks, Timberwolves, Celtics, Clippers, Nets, Mavericks, Pacers, Warriors and Cavaliers. Would it be fair to include the Hornets as team who passed on Kobe having agreed to trade away their 1st round draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers? Below I take a closer look…
Kobe in the 1996 NBA Draft
The journey for Bryant to arrive in Los Angeles was not entirely straightforward. The Lakers, in order to free up salary cap space for the incoming Shaquille O’Neal, agreed a trade to send Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to their No.13 pick. Despite having received numerous awards, including Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men’s National Player of the Year and named as a McDonald’s All-American for his play in high school the Hornets had never considered drafting Bryant. During the draft the Lakers TOLD them who to pick, allegedly, moments before the choice was made. However, following the draft Divac threatened to retire rather than be traded away from Los Angeles, a threat he later retracted and the trade was finalised on July 9th, 1996. The New Jersey Nets were a team with an interest in Kobe. Their General Manager at the time, John Nash, knew of Bryant from his time in Pennsylvania. Nets coach John Calipari had also taken workout sessions with him and expressed an interest in drafting Bryant to New Jersey. It has been previously reported that Bryant had said he wouldn’t want to play anywhere other than with the Lakers and had scrimmaged with former Laker players before the draft with then Laker GM Jerry West stating that Bryant had simply “walked over these people”. West had worked out the deal with Charlotte for their 13th pick and in order for the dream to come true Bryant and his team convinced New Jersey that if they selected him he would not suit up for them, even raising a possibility of him playing in Italy instead. The Nets instead took Villanova product Kerry Kittles with their number 8 pick. A player who would later meet, and lose to Bryant and his Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals. This selection of Kobe at number 13 is, in my opinion, one of the greatest steals in NBA draft history.
Whilst other players from this draft class went on to have successful, decorated careers there isn’t anyone from this year that had the level of success of Bryant. He began his career winning the Slam dunk contest and setting a scoring record in the Rookie game at the 1997 All-Star weekend. He would then go on to win 5 NBA Championships, set the all time single game scoring record of 81points, second only to Wilt Chamberlain and a 100 point record set in a very different era of basketball.
Who was picked before Kobe in the 1996 Draft?
The 1996 Draft class was deep and full of talent. It is often mentioned alongside with the ’84, ’85 and 2003 classes as the All-Time great draft years. High praise when you consider that these Draft classes contained such legends as Jordan, Barkley, Olajuwon, Stockton and Malone, Ewing, and future Hall of Famers like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The most notable picks, in my opinion, before the selection of Bryant included: –
1st – Allen Iverson to the Philadelphia 76ers, a player I consider to be one of the best to never win an NBA Championship
2nd – Marcus Camby to Toronto Raptors, Camby would go on to become a solid defensive player and help the Knicks to reach the NBA Finals.
4th – Stephon Marbury to Milwaukee Bucks, Marbury would be traded on draft night to the Timberwolves and would have a solid NBA career which was unfortunately in it’s later stages tainted by controversies and disagreements
5th – Ray Allen to Minnesota Timberwolves, Allen went the other way in the Marbury trade. Ray Allen would develop into one of the all time great 3 point shooters in NBA history and would win 2 Championships in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and 2013 with the Miami Heat.
These players along with Shareef Abdur-Rahim (No.3), Antoine Walker (No.6) and Kerry Kittles (No.8) all went on to have solid NBA careers, reaching NBA Finals, winning titles or gaining personal accolades. However others selected above Bryant, such as Lorenzen Wright, Samaki Walker and Todd Fuller, despite some success, I feel these players never reached their full potential or the heights of Kobe Bryant. True, some of them had to retire early due to injury or in the case of Todd Fuller could just be considered a flop averaging 3.7ppg over 5 seasons.
Beyond the 1996 Draft
In his first season in Los Angeles Kobe would act mainly as back-up for the established Laker backcourt of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. He put on an eye-opening show at the 1997 All-Star weekend setting a scoring record in the rookie challenge and convincingly winning the Slam dunk contest. Over the next seasons Kobe, teamed with Shaquille O’Neal, would form one of the all-time great duos in NBA history. When I think of the great 1-2 punches in the NBA Shaq and Kobe have to be named alogside the likes of Magic and Kareem, Jordan and Pippen, Stockton and Malone and, maybe controversially but in my opinion one of the most exciting duos during the 1990s, Payton and Kemp. This incredible combination of Kobe’s skills and Shaq’s dominance would lead the Lakers to 3 consecutive NBA titles between 2000 and 2002. Bryant would later claim another 2 NBA Championships with the Lakers in 2009, 2010 after Shaq had moved on to other teams. He would continue to be one of the top players in the NBA and lead the Lakers but would decline physically over the next few years. After suffering with a torn achilles tendon during the 2013 season and then following more injuries to his knees and shoulders Kobe would take the decision to retire after the 2015 – 2016 season. Bryant would continue to preach his “Mamba Mentality” of hard work and perseverance, coach his daughters, use his influence to set up the Mamba Sports Academies in California and even win an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”.
Would Kobe have had the level of success and become the legendary figure that he is if he had been selected by a team like the 76ers, the Nets or the Clippers? At the time he was drafted these teams were all struggling, had little or no success and didn’t have the ability to bring in big name stars that would have complimented a player like the young Bryant and helped him improve. It could be argued that it was the mentality Kobe developed over the years, his work ethic and his own personal abilities that made him into the exceptional player he became. I feel that had he gone anywhere else while he may have had personal success he might not necessarily have won the Championships. With the Lakers it was a perfect fit of the right player in the right place at the right time, with the right people around him and the fact the he didn’t want to go anywhere else that allowed the 13th pick straight out of high school to become one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.
On January 26th 2020, Bryant and his daughter Gianna, along with 7 others, would tragically be killed in a helicopter accident whilst travelling to a basketball game in Calabasas, California. This incident and Bryant’s death sent shockwaves through not only the sporting world but across the world as a whole. On a personal level, I was just getting into basketball during the 1995-96 season and after seeing Kobe during the ’97 All-Star weekend I was inspired to pursue basketball more seriously. This took me to America where I played as a senior in high school, I continued to play at University and made a group of incredible friends and amazing memories. Bryant was an inspiration to me and I would not have had many of these experiences if I hadn’t seen his incredible talents.