As the NBA continues to grieve over the loss of Kobe Bryant, who died in a tragic helicopter crash on Sunday, stories and memories about the Black Mamba continue to roll in. Players have paid homage by sporting his jerseys pregame and donning his name on their sneakers, while fans around the world are mourning the loss of one the game's biggest names. Kobe transcended what an NBA star was, and it only made sense that he built his legendary career with a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise known for building other-worldly talent.
However, the draft-day trade that sent Bryant to the Lakers from the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 almost never happened, according to Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak. Charlotte selected Bryant with its No. 13 draft pick, and immediately traded him to Los Angeles for Vlade Divac, but while talking to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, Kupchak detailed how Bryant almost never became a Laker. He also said the Hornets weren't even sure if they would've been able to draft him at all.
"There was such excitement around the pick that Charlotte actually didn't want to go through with the deal," Kupchak said via the Charlotte Observer. "There was a time there, whether it was Vlade [Divac threatening to retire] or just pressure on the franchise, where the deal was actually in jeopardy."
Kupchak, who was the assistant general manager of the Lakers back in 1996, has first-hand knowledge of the trade that brought Bryant to the Lakers, and sent Divac to the Hornets. At the time, Divac was threatening to retire if the Lakers tried to trade him. If that would've happened the deal would've been called off entirely, leaving Bryant a member of the Hornets.
Divac said that his trepidation about being traded to Charlotte began to dissipate after he visited the city and came around to the idea of playing there. That, though, wasn't the only hurdle that needed to be cleared in order to get Bryant in purple and gold. Kobe's agent at the time, Arn Tellum, was set on getting his client to Los Angeles, and Jerry West, who was the general manager of the Lakers during that time, was willing to do whatever it took to get him there, too.
"It was Jerry's vision that we just had to get the pick [to acquire Bryant], which we didn't have," Kupchak said.
Bryant worked out for the Lakers twice before the 1996 draft, and according to Kupchak, West was mesmerized by Kobe's ability at just 17 years old. After the second workout, West banded together with Kobe's agent to limit the Lower Merion High School star's pre-draft workouts with other teams. The thought was that if other teams didn't get a good enough look at Kobe before the draft, it would dissuade them from picking him. This ultimately helped him slide to the Hornets so the Lakers could execute their trade with them.
The only problem was that the New Jersey Nets were thinking about taking Bryant with the No. 8 pick. That's when Tellum met with then-Nets coach John Calipari and their general manager to convince them to pass on Kobe.
"It was a calculated gamble," Tellem said via the Charlotte Observer. "I remember meeting with John Calipari and John Nash, pressing them not to take him if he fell. I left not knowing if they would pass. I thought they would pass, but didn't know. Coach Cal was the one who felt it wasn't worth the gamble [based on] what I had communicated and maybe he was a little uncertain" about building around a high school player."
It worked, though, because the Nets instead took Kerry Kittles out of Villanova, and Bryant, of course, was drafted 13th by the Hornets, and then soon traded to the Lakers. While Bryant and the Lakers were the perfect combination, it likely wouldn't have mattered where he would've ended up. The type of talent and drive that Kobe possessed was bound to shine through regardless if he would've ended up with the Lakers, Hornets or even a member of the Nets.