ON THAT MONUMENTAL day, the only thing Kobe Bryant carried with him was a basketball. It was early June 1996, on the morning of his now-legendary pre-draft workout in Los Angeles, when a skinny, smiley Bryant, then 17, stepped out of the swanky Shutters on the Beach resort in Santa Monica, California, with his favorite basketball tucked under his arm.
Waiting for him there in a Chevy Blazer was his driver for the day, Ryan West, the teenage son of NBA legend and longtime Lakers exec Jerry West. “It was the funniest thing, but it showed the two sides of Kobe,” says Ryan, now a scout with the Detroit Pistons. “It showed the laser focus and dedication of Kobe but also the child-like nature of Kobe, bringing his favorite toy with him wherever he went.”
Having someone Kobe’s own age show him around L.A. was agent Arn Tellem’s idea. This workout was potentially the seminal moment of Kobe’s young career, and Tellem wanted his prodigy from Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia as comfortable and relaxed as possible. The year before, the 6-foot-11 Kevin Garnett had joined fellow bigs Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone in making the leap from prep to pro. But Kobe was the first guard to dare make the jump. “He’s kidding himself,” NBA scouting director Marty Blake told reporters at the time. “Sure, he’d like to come out. I’d like to be a movie star, too. He’s not ready.”
After working out for several NBA teams, though, Kobe, the son of former pro player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, had been quickly climbing draft charts most of the summer. The Nets and their new coach, John Calipari, picking at No. 8, had already worked him out several times and were especially smitten.
From a marketing and basketball standpoint, though, Tellem knew there was only one place for his client: Showtime. All Kobe had to do was convince the team’s architect and guardian, Jerry West, who had agreed to the workout only as a special favor to Tellem and had planned quite the comeuppance for the kid: Once he and Ryan dealt with the 405 Freeway, Kobe’s on-court opponent would be Michael Cooper, one of the greatest defenders in NBA history.
What unfolded over the next 45 minutes inside the Inglewood YMCA still leaves most NBA insiders grasping for words 25 years later. Just not Ryan West. “It’s very simple to sum up,” he says. “Greatest workout I’ve ever seen.”
Witnessed by just a handful of people (the videotape recordings have vanished) Kobe’s Lakers workout would ignite a nonstop frenzy of pre-draft machinations, subterfuge and intrigue before ultimately launching a legend, revitalizing a dynasty, revolutionizing a sport and inspiring one epic oral history.
Mark Heisler, L.A. Times NBA writer, 1979-2011: Kobe was truly a prodigy. The word prodigy would have been invented for him as far as basketball goes. He told me once he thought he had a destiny in the NBA. I asked him: “When did you first start thinking that?” And he said: “When I was 5.” Kobe didn’t have “overwhelmed” in him. It was just the opposite. In Philly in high school, he had already been working out with the 76ers, and he didn’t think any of these NBA guys could keep up with him, and to a large extent, it was true.
Bobby Marks, current ESPN analyst, Nets front office, 1995-2015: Back then you were allowed to have NBA players with three years or less of experience work out with draft prospects. So I ask Ed O’Bannon and Khalid Reeves to come in. Ed had just come off his rookie year, and he was the national player of the year before at UCLA — and Kobe just dominated. These guys didn’t take Kobe all that serious until he started lighting them up, and you could tell they had no idea what they had gotten themselves into until probably halfway through the workout.
Heisler: His dad was an easy-going guy, a sweet guy, always laughing. He wasn’t a hard-nosed competitor. But Kobe was. And that part, that passion for the work, that came from his mom, Pam — she was the boss of that family.
Joe Carbone, Bryant’s strength coach, 1995-2004: I was with him for one of his Nets workouts, and the look on Calipari’s face the whole time was like, “holy s—.” Calipari says, “Let me see you shoot the 3,” and Kobe just starts stroking it effortlessly. So Cal says, “Take a few steps back.” Boom. Swish. “Take a few more steps back.” Boom. Swish. Cal says, “That’s it, I’m done,” and then, kinda to himself, he goes, “This guy’s the next Jordan, I gotta get him.”
Marks: We should have made him a guarantee right then and there, shut him down and put him in the witness protection program until the draft. After workouts each team is responsible for the player’s travel. We had a rule that guys who were 6-foot-8 or above would fly first class, and Kobe was not 6-foot-8. I pled with the gate agent about the middle seat, but there was nothing available. I remember thinking at the time, oh who the hell cares, he’s a 17-year-old kid, too bad. Well, I remember getting my ass chewed out by Arn Tellem. You laugh about it now, but back then, trust me, it wasn’t funny.
Heisler: I was in Chicago for the draft combine that year and I walked into the Chicago Marriott and I looked up and saw Kobe on the mezzanine level, standing by himself looking down into the hotel lobby. I introduced myself, told him I knew his dad, and he said he was eventually headed to Los Angeles to work out for the Lakers. He looked like a teenage boy a long way from home. Shy wouldn’t be the right word, but a little bit withdrawn. Soft spoken. He looked lonely. The first thing you think when you see him standing there was: Can he hack it at this level?
Mitch Kupchak, Lakers GM, 1994-2017: We knew who he was. He played in the McDonald’s game, but we did not get a glowing report from that game. It was a very pedestrian performance.
Heisler: Even Arn didn’t know what he had. He was originally from Philly and he had taken Kobe on as a client, but he was good friends with Jerry, and Jerry had a really good eye. If he saw a good player, he wouldn’t need to talk to 12 people to confirm it. He’d know right then.
John Black, Lakers VP of public relations, 1989-2017: Jerry was clearly a genius at talent evaluation. At the draft that year I was the Lakers’ designated in-person team representative, the guy in the arena, on the phone with our draft room back in L.A. We had the 24th pick that year, and it was between Derek Fisher and Jerome Williams, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Georgetown. We were on the clock with three minutes to make our pick and I was on speaker phone with Jerry, who started going around the room asking everyone who they liked. Time is ticking down — two minutes left, one minute left, 30 seconds — and every person said Jerome Williams. So now the NBA rep is standing right next to me and there’s 10 seconds left and he wants to know who our pick is — and in my other ear I can still hear all the people around Jerry saying Jerome Williams, Jerome Williams, Jerome Williams. And I say, “Jerry, time’s up, who is our pick?” And he says, “John, we take Derek Fisher.”
Jerry West, Hall of Famer, Lakers front office, 1982-2000: I didn’t set it up. Kobe’s agent, Arn Tellem, did. We had been friends for years, and he said Kobe was in town shooting a commercial. I had watched film on him but had never gone to see him in a high school game. I was aware of his father and I was very aware of Kobe’s story, but [drafting guards out of high school] just wasn’t in vogue at the time.
Black: One day I was sitting in my office at the Forum, and Jerry just pops his head into my office and says, “Hey, come on, let’s go, we got a workout, you gotta see this kid!” In the summers the court inside the Forum would not be down because there would be concerts, hockey, the rodeo or whatever. So we worked out guys at Inglewood High and the Inglewood YMCA — they were both like a minute car ride from the Forum. To me it was just Jerry being social, wanting to include other people in something he was excited about. I knew the names being bandied about that we were looking at, and Kobe wasn’t one of them. It was just a chance to get out of the office.
Ryan West, son of Jerry West, Lakers front office, 2009-2019: The Inglewood YMCA was not the nicest gym in the world. It was probably 30 years out of date. It was small, not a full-sized court even, and it had a real homey feel to it. I’ve read a lot about the workouts and there has been a lot of misinformation about it. As time has gone by people have gotten the details mixed up about the order and the location of the workouts. But I’m blessed with a great memory and I drove him to the workouts and I remember it like it was yesterday. The first place where the story gets misconstrued is with Michael Cooper. He was the first workout. The other error is about Inglewood High. I specifically remember walking through the door with Kobe that day at the Inglewood YMCA.
Kupchak: Today you walk into a workout and there’s trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, sports scientists, measurements, charting, all kinds of stuff. Back then, it was all pretty informal. I’m not even sure we had someone there to rebound the ball for him.
Ryan West: At the beginning they were running him through drills, and Kobe would just go to the rim and dunk every ball. My dad stopped the workout and said, “Kobe, we know you can dunk. Let’s see what else you can do.” He wanted to see him do other things rather than just tear the rim down every time. My dad wanted to see players put in situations they would find themselves in during NBA games. That’s when you saw the pull-up game, the jump hooks, the floaters. Kobe had every shot in his repertoire.
Black: Michael Cooper was 40 at the time, and he had been retired a few years but he was still a freak. Still wiry. Still in great shape. Cooper at 40 was like a normal person at 25. Larry Bird is on record saying Cooper was the most difficult guy he ever played against in his career, the toughest guy to ever defend him. And there’s Jerry saying to him, “Don’t take it easy on this kid. Make him work as hard as you can.”
Michael Cooper, Lakers guard, 1978-1990: I thought I was going to go out there and whip his ass, to tell you the truth. That was my thought. I was like, OK, look, I don’t give a f— how old I am, I’m not gonna let some f—ing guy do anything.
And boy was I brought back to reality quick. In a hurry I found out that 40 and 17 don’t go together on the court. At the very beginning, I got right in there and got my hands right up in his face. Guys hate that, especially young guys. He just rose up over my hand like I wasn’t even there. I was planning on him not being that strong and that he’d be intimidated. This is an unfair comparison to this young man because I really like him, this LaMelo Ball kid in Charlotte, 19 years old he comes out to the NBA and you see his little, frail body — Kobe didn’t have that frail body at that age.
Carbone: The knock on Kobe in high school was even if he had the skills he was too skinny. I met him the summer of 1995, and Kobe trained that whole year and put on 10-15 pounds of muscle. His first visit to the Nets, the GM at the time, Willis Reed — his hands are huge — well he grabs Kobe around the upper arm and he’s shaking him and he says, “OK, you ain’t so skinny.”
Black: Kobe never backed down from anyone, even at age 17. Kobe did not know how to be deferential. Michael was playing his best and Kobe just had his way with him. Kobe was just destroying him.
Raymond Ridder, current senior VP of communications, Golden State Warriors, Lakers PR staff, 1990-1998: I just saw Michael Jordan out there. Kobe had all the Jordan mannerisms: the fadeaway jumper, dribbling between his legs, tongue hanging out — he had perfected every Jordan move at the age of 17.
“I thought I was going to go out there and whip his ass, to tell you the truth. That was my thought. I was like, OK, look, I don’t give a f— how old I am, I’m not gonna let some f—ing guy do anything.”
Former Lakers guard and DPOY Michael Cooper, who guarded the 17-year-old Kobe
Cooper: There were certain things Jerry wanted to see. The big one was: Could he get to a spot? Great players can always get to their spot. Spots, and the angles you take to get there, are so important in basketball. You might not always hit the shot, but if you can get there, that’s when you feel like you’ll hit 8 out of 10, or 9 out of 10. Jerry requested that he get to an exact spot, say, at the elbow, every time. Not a foot away, not two feet away, not an inch away. Even the very best offensive players cannot get to that spot by just going from Point A to Point B. Sometimes you’re gonna have to take me to A to C to F and then come back to B. So that was the first thing I admired about Kobe. I had done this, taken this away against Larry Bird, Dr. J, and a young Michael Jordan, and here’s a young man fresh out of high school and I’m trying to deny him certain places on the court, and Kobe was able to get to his spot, I’d say, nine times out of 10.
Ryan West: They had him doing a particular play off a pick and roll where Kobe was the ball handler and he threw me a great pass, and I went up for the layup and completely bricked the layup. I was so embarrassed.
Cooper: One time Kobe comes off the screen and he got me pretty low so I ended up going under the screen. Now, a decent offensive player in the NBA would think, OK the defense is under the screen — let me take one dribble past the pick and hit a jump shot. Sure, you could hit that shot, but that’s the shot the defense wants to give you. He came off the screen, gave me a little pump fake, which rose me off my feet and gave him some room and then he drove — one-two, bounce, dribble — got to the elbow, rose up and hit the shot. Then he went to the left side and did the same thing.
Ridder: He wanted to do everything he could to destroy Michael Cooper. That mentality was something he had from day one, and you saw it in this workout. He had the mamba mentality at 17.
About halfway through the workout, legend has it that things began to heat up, with Kobe and Cooper talking trash and throwing elbows. Kobe was, after all, notorious for ruthlessly humiliating all challengers — teammates, coaches, friends even — in games of one-on-one. But the truth is Kobe was so dominant and relentless (at one point he hit 12 shots in a row from the baseline) the workout never even got competitive enough to become contentious.
That week in Los Angeles, Kobe was already shooting his first commercial. Even as a teenager he was a genius at building a brand and spinning his own mythology. Growing up a Lakers fan, he knew exactly who Michael Cooper was and, more importantly, what people around the NBA would say if he strolled into L.A. and destroyed one of the game’s greatest defenders. So Kobe never said a word. He knew the workout would speak volumes on its own. In fact, the only chatter heard that day came from former Laker Norm Nixon, who tried to encourage Cooper by yelling, “Bang on him, Coop! Bang on him!” from the bleachers. It didn’t help. Afterward, Nixon walked up to his old friend and whispered, “The kid just kicked your ass.”
Cooper: He did kick me in the nuts one time with his leg, and I was mad about that. But that was it. I was banging on him. I was hitting him with my forearm and he was banging me right back. I hit him hard one time, in the kidney and it was a cheap shot, on purpose. It was just that he was backing me down, backing me down and so I hit him. He felt it, you could tell. I said, “Hey man, sorry about that,” but Kobe was so focused on the workout he was like, “No, no, no problem, Coach, let’s go.” When he’d hit me with an elbow he would say, “Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” and I said, “Quit treating me like an old man.” But no, Kobe didn’t talk. And it was a good thing. Jerry hated that. He always said, why are you fraternizing with the enemy out there? Why are you talking to the enemy when you should be trying to kick their ass? No, Kobe had one thing on his mind: He wanted to play in Los Angeles.
West: He just had that “It” factor. LeBron James, Magic Johnson, people like that, they just have it. Kobe had it. You could see it. You could feel it.
Cooper: When we moved to the low post, Jerry took off the restraints. Kobe didn’t have to hit a certain spot or go a specific way anymore. So I didn’t know what he was going to do. I was at his mercy. Left-hand hooks. One-bounce turnarounds. And he had that little shake shot, that little MJ shake with his back to the basket and that fall-away shot. And he was able to get up and get his shot off and sink it time after time after time.
Ridder: When I think back to that day, that’s what I continuously see over and over in my mind: Kobe backing Coop down for those turnaround fadeaway 16-foot jumpers, tongue out, from the baseline, the free throw line, the elbow, all around. Kobe hitting those from everywhere.
Carbone: Kobe was about the 10,000-hour rule even as a teenager. In high school, on Saturdays he’d lift at St. Joseph’s and then I’d rebound for him when he’d shoot. He had just started when the lady who ran the gym yelled, “We’re closing!” and then, boom, with no warning she shut off all the lights. I’m holding the ball in the dark, thinking, OK, I guess we’re done, and Kobe yells, “Give me the ball!” I was actually afraid for a little bit because he yelled it so loud. But I gave him the ball and he kept shooting in the dark for another half-hour. Swish. Swish. Swish.
Black: I don’t remember if it was 10 shots in a row that he made or more. I knew Michael Cooper pretty well and he was very proud, and he definitely took that request from Jerry as a challenge. He wanted to shut Kobe down. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think Michael was embarrassed by what Kobe did to him that day.
Kupchak: The ease with which at 17 he was able to compete with one of the all-time great defenders in the game, that’s what really stood out.
Cooper: When I did force him to take a bad shot, he’d just smile and shoot me that eye of the tiger.
Ridder: I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then Jerry stands up after what felt like only 20 minutes and, I’ll never forget this, he says: “Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen enough. This kid’s better than anybody we have on our team right now.”
West: He was incredibly gifted in terms of skill at that point. It was a very impressive workout and, frankly, a lot more than expected. And all of a sudden your antenna goes up and you think, Oh my gosh, this kid’s really good. With our position in the draft, at No. 24, I was just thinking: There’s no way, we have no chance of getting this guy.
Ryan West: Larry Drew was a Lakers assistant at the time. Someone asked him what he thought that day and his line always stuck with me. He said, “That man is the truth.”
“This guy’s the next Jordan. I gotta get him.”
New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari, after Kobe worked out for the team in the spring on 1996
As they were leaving the gym, West turned to an exhausted Cooper and joked: “I thought you were going to guard him?”
West: Coop was a good one. I gave him a hard time about it. It was just Father Time. I told him, “You’re just too damn old and this guy, he’s just too damn good.” Regardless of who Kobe worked out against, he was going to be the best player on the floor.
Kupchak: He was just obsessed with competition to a level you don’t see in young players very often. You don’t get that maniacal competitiveness very often, and here we were seeing it with someone who was 17.
Cooper: When I finished that workout, and my part in it was probably only 20-30 minutes, it felt like I had played a seven-game series with the Celtics again. Like I had just finished facing Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. My body was aching something bad.
Coincidentally, a few weeks earlier, when Kobe worked out for Boston, he was matched up against Johnson, Cooper’s nemesis, who was then an assistant coach with the Celtics. The results were very similar, and timeless: Age yields to youth. In his Boston workout and especially in his interview with team execs, Kobe wowed the entire Celtics organization, all the way up to team president Red Auerbach himself. The hardest part of the entire ordeal for Kobe, who had grown up a die-hard Lakers fan, was having to put on the Celtic Green workout gear. Kobe and West were kindred spirits in that regard: After losing to the Celtics six times in the NBA Finals as a player, West had forbidden that particular shade of green in his house.
Cooper: Afterward, I’m sweating like a b—- over there and Jerry leans in and asks me, “Coop, what do you think?” And I was like, “Jerry, he’s f—ing good, man.” Right after that Jerry says: “This is our guy.” I’ll never forget that: “This is the kid.” And then everyone said it: This is our pick, this is our guy. And you know what? Thank God.
West: You watch a workout like that — there isn’t much of a choice to think of anything else. I remember saying to Jerry Buss, our owner, I said, “Jerry, he’s the best player in the draft.” I meant it. I would have taken Kobe as the first player in the draft. It was a no-brainer. He had this — forget desire — he just didn’t want to stop playing. Ever.
Ryan West: After the workout, it was so funny, driving back to Santa Monica he wanted to go find an empty gym to go play in and he was trying, the whole time, to convince me to take him somewhere to find a pickup game. I finally said, “Kobe, you’re in the pre-draft process for the NBA. I don’t know if you want to risk getting injured.” Knowing him, when I dropped him off at the hotel he probably found a way to go somewhere and play or at least work on his game.
Ridder: We all hopped back into Jerry’s car and sat there in sheer amazement at what we had just seen.
Black: I think Jerry was a Mercedes guy, and in his car he was raving the whole time: “That’s the best workout I’ve ever seen.”
More stories from David Fleming
But not for long. A few days later, with Kobe still in town shooting his commercial, the Lakers brought him back for one more workout, this time with Dontae’ Jones, the 6’8″ 220-pound senior power forward who had just carried Mississippi State to the Final Four and was a projected first-rounder.
Heisler: This was a big, strong guy. He was a load. Before that workout started, the Lakers probably thought there was a very good chance that Dontae’ Jones was gonna kick Kobe’s ass.
Ryan West: They were so impressed by what Kobe had done to Cooper, the idea with the second workout was, let’s validate, let’s see if he can do this against somebody who is ready to play in the NBA right now. Dontae’ Jones was a physical specimen and Kobe just had his way with him. The first thing Dontae’ did was try to use his strength and bully him by taking him down into the post and shooting a jump hook. Kobe blocked it. The second workout was even much more impressive than the first and, with my dad, it started a borderline obsession with Kobe.
Kupchak: Afterward we went to a Subway and sat down and had lunch with Arn. Kobe and Ryan West were at another table. They were either talking about, or playing, video games. This Subway had an outdoor seating area that was a little more private because Jerry couldn’t really go many places in L.A. Kobe was fine. Nobody knew who he was.
Ridder: Jerry’s a notoriously fast eater. He’s the fastest eater in the world. A sandwich or a burrito, he’d scarf that thing down in four minutes and we’d be back in the car. Knowing Jerry he scarfed his lunch down even faster that day because he was in a hurry to get back to the Forum and start figuring out a way to swing a trade to get this kid.
Ryan West: Taking Kobe back to his hotel the second time it all just seemed like the perfect marriage. Everyone at the Lakers was so enamored with him. And him being in Los Angeles and being a Laker, it all made too much sense. They were going to find a way to get him no matter what. The draft was only a couple weeks away. When I dropped him off, he said “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.” And I kinda winked at him and said, “I have a feeling I’m gonna see you again pretty soon.”
Heisler: Kobe was pretty OK going to the Nets, until he came out west for his Lakers workouts. Now Kobe’s hanging out with Ryan West and eating dinner at the Wests’ house and he’s part of the family. This was the most important part of this whole thing: Every team that brought in Kobe — the Clippers, the Suns and others — they all said it was the greatest workout they had ever seen and immediately started trying to make moves to get him. But at that point Kobe decided he wanted to be a Laker, and he didn’t want to be anything else. The big thing they had to do was shake New Jersey.
After wolfing down his footlong sub, West hatched a plan. Because the Lakers weren’t picking until 24th in the draft, his priority to that point had been trying to lure free agent Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando to Los Angeles. First, though, West had to move Lakers center Vlade Divac and his $4.7 million salary to clear roster and cap space for Shaq’s seven-year, $120 million offer. Now, also needing to move up in order to grab Kobe, the deal took on even more significance — almost too much. West later wrote that the stress sent him “spiraling downward and into the hospital for exhaustion for a few days.”
Starting with Toronto, which had the No. 2 pick, West approached every team ahead of the Lakers with an offer to trade Divac for their selection. Finally, the Hornets bit at 13. They agreed to draft and trade Kobe for Divac, provided he was still on the board. Tellem and the Bryants then went to work to make sure that he would be.
Marks: This is where the Lakers and Arn and Kobe’s parents all joined forces to make it as difficult as possible for us to make a decision on Kobe. Arn had the leverage. New Jersey was hosting the draft and the threat was Kobe would not put on that cap when his name was picked. Is that how you want to start off your coaching career in the NBA? The night before the draft we met with Arn and Kobe’s parents at the Radisson in Secaucus, on Route 3. Cal had a suite on the top level. Going into that meeting Kobe was still the No. 1 guy on our draft board. After that meeting everything changed.
The draft was being held at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford and John Calipari, the Nets’ new coach, was leaning toward Kobe at No. 8, but he was naïve in the ways of pre-draft subterfuge. Tellem called and warned Calipari that Kobe was headed to L.A. and he’d hold out, or go play in Italy, if the Nets called his name. Don’t mess this up, he told Calipari, or you’ll pay. Kobe also called to reiterate the message. The best he could come up with, though, was he didn’t want to play near home. Part of Calipari’s new $3 million a year contract was final say on all basketball decisions. The Nets’ front office begged him to call Kobe’s bluff. And all the while, another powerhouse agent, David Falk, was pressuring Calipari to take his client, Kerry Kittles.
By the day of the 1996 draft, Kobe had Calipari more off-balance than Cooper.
Kupchak: A factor with a lot of GMs and especially coaches is that, wait a minute, we have to wait three years on a prospect to develop? So it bodes to Jerry’s — not sure courage is the right word — but his acumen to identify talent like Kobe’s and to roll the dice when we didn’t really have a bar to measure him against. You just had to use your eye, but that wasn’t easy. Your eye tells you one thing and reality pushes back: Don’t trust your eyes. This kid is only 17. So it would have been easy to write him off as a young, athletic kid and think we just don’t know what he’s going to turn into. That would have been the easy route.
His voice echoing throughout a raucous Continental Airlines Arena, after welcoming everyone, NBA commissioner David Stern stepped back to the podium and announced: “With the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft the Philadelphia 76ers select … Allen Iverson from Georgetown University.”
Ryan West: There was a lot of tension in our draft war room that year. They felt confident that Kobe would fall to 13, but only if he made it past New Jersey at 8.
As Lakers scouts held their breath in L.A., one by one, the giant blue IBM game-show-style tote board on the stage flipped over to reveal each subsequent pick. Marcus Camby went next to Toronto then Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen. The Celtics and Clippers had the sixth and seventh picks. Knowing both teams were high on Bryant, there was a slight exhale when Boston took Antoine Walker and L.A. selected Lorenzen Wright. That left just the Nets. Would Cal blink?
Ryan West: There were five minutes between picks but it felt more like 30.
Stern returned to his podium in front of two larger-than-life NBA logos — the silhouettes of Jerry West himself — and announced: “With the eighth pick in the 1996 NBA draft the New Jersey Nets select … Kerry Kittles from Villanova University.” (Less than three years later, after starting the 1998-1999 season 3-17, Calipari was fired by the Nets.)
Ryan West: When Stern announced that the Nets were drafting Kerry Kittles, there was a lot of joy in that room.
And just as West had planned, five picks later the Hornets took Bryant, who made sure to stick out his tongue — a la Jordan — as soon as he was on camera. “Jerry West told me today that greatness lies ahead for this young man,” noted TNT commentator Rick Pitino as Kobe made his way to the stage. Bryant’s trade to L.A. was announced later that day.
West: The first thing I said to Jerry Buss was, “We just got the best player in the draft.”
Heisler: The Suns were sitting at 15, ready. Danny Ainge was the Suns’ [assistant] coach at the time. He tried to make a deal with Golden State at 11 to move up to take Kobe. Years later he was still incredulous that they turned him down to draft some white guy [Todd Fuller] from the ACC. After the Hornets took Kobe at 13 and the deal with the Lakers was announced, Ainge was the first one to put it all together. He turned to everyone inside the Suns’ war room and said, “Oh my god, they’ve got Kobe and Shaq.”
Kupchak: There was so much excitement after the draft that we got the guy. And then it was, all of a sudden, maybe we’re not going to get him. At that point Charlotte did have second thoughts. It leaked out that Vlade didn’t want to leave L.A., but the bigger threat was Charlotte changing their minds. Jerry and I both spent time on the phone with Hornets GM Bob Bass. We had a deal in place and Jerry had a longstanding relationship with the Hornets. But you can’t go nuts because then you just create an environment where there’s anger and it becomes easy for someone to say, “Well, you’re acting like an idiot now so the deal’s off.” You gotta talk it through, and we had to say to Bob, “Hey, a deal’s a deal.” You had to be careful, though, because at the end of the day it’s not in writing. So it was a very up and down emotional period that lasted for several days.
Fifteen to be exact. Divac had initially threatened to retire but after visiting Charlotte (and without a no-trade clause), he relented. Meanwhile, the Hornets cooled on the idea of staking their future on a teenager. The trade went through on July 11. Because he was still 17, Kobe had to co-sign his first Lakers contract with his parents. A week later, Shaq signed with the Lakers.
West: After we got Shaq, one of the first things I told him was, “We have one of the best young players in the league already and he’s going to be a huge star.”
Over the next eight seasons together, Kobe and Shaq would go on to win three NBA titles from 2000-2002. Kobe collected two more rings in 2009-2010 before retiring in 2016. On Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others. He was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in August and will be inducted in May.
West: That first workout, it was like watching Pavarotti. He was a basketball genius. We were fortunate to get him and fans in L.A. were lucky enough to see one of the most iconic players of all time. Kobe was going to be something even more successful off the court than he was on the court. When he left this earth, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of grief, not just here but worldwide. There are days that will live forever in the sports world, and this was one.
Ryan West: In Kobe’s last year, after he had announced he was retiring, I was with the Lakers and we were still at our old practice facility where we had copies of all our pre-draft workouts. I wanted a copy of his workout as a keepsake just for a moment in time, a piece of NBA history, something that I participated in that I would love to share with my own family one day. We had every workout on tape, but the only one we couldn’t find was Kobe’s. I don’t know where they are. I wonder if our video guy has them in a vault somewhere. Somebody has it somewhere.
Ridder: That workout was an unbelievable day, one that I’ll never forget the rest of my life. The impression it left on me, about how to work and how to prepare and wanting to be the best is still with me to this day. Jerry, John, Mitch and I, we can’t go more than a few conversations without that workout coming up because it’s such a powerful, lingering memory for all of us. Years later, after I moved from L.A. to Golden State, every time we’d play the Lakers and Kobe, I’d go into the locker to say hi and I’d always say, don’t forget Kobe, I was there from day one. And we’d both smile about it.
Marks: The Nets played the Lakers in the Finals in 2002, and after they swept us I was walking through the hallways inside the arena. Kobe walks past me and he turns around and says, “Hey, you know I would have come here.” And I believe he would have. We should have never let him get on that plane.
Heisler: His audacity on the court was just jaw-dropping. You just could not believe that he would even dare to do such things. In retrospect he was one of the guys who changed the game in 1996, and it revolved around him for the next 15 years.
Cooper: The last time I saw him, the Mavs were in town and he came to the game with his daughter Gigi. He had that orange hoodie on. I saw him before the game, he said, “Coop, how you doing?” Instead of watching the game I found myself watching him enjoying the game of basketball with his daughter. He got up and left and the fans went crazy. That was the last time I saw him. He’s gone now, but the one thing I have is that workout. Everything about him, and his whole game, was in that workout.
Heisler: That might be the most amazing part of this whole story: It was purely an accident. And once they saw Kobe in that workout, it changed the NBA for years to come, it changed everything.
Ryan West: People ask me all the time what is the greatest sporting event you’ve ever been to and I always say Kobe’s last game when he scored 60. The way he went out was unbelievable. Nothing will top his last game.
Before the game I went into the locker room and gave him a hug, and I was really emotional. I was on the verge of tears. I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t speak. And he says, “I’ll never forget that the first time I was on the 405 freeway was with you.”
In the last five minutes of that game, there was a moment when he hit that shot to put the Lakers up and it was like something out of a movie. It was the culmination of being there from day one, seeing him in that gym by himself at 17 taking those same kinda shots to, here we are, 20 years later, he’s doing the same thing, only now he’s the biggest superstar in the NBA and a five-time champion, closing out his career. I’m standing at my seat watching all this and, for a moment, I swear, I flashed back to his workout in Inglewood. It was poetic.