How Kobe Bryant manipulated his way to Lakers on draft day
Kobe Bryant has played for only one team during his 19-season NBA career, so it’s easy for many people to forget that he was actually drafted by another organization. Yes, back in 1996, Kobe was selected by the Charlotte Hornets. True story.
The Hornets drafted Kobe No. 13 overall in the 1996 NBA draft and traded him three weeks later for Vlade Divac. The trade was supposedly worked out before the draft, but how did Kobe and the Lakers ensure that no team in the first 12 spots would take the high schooler? The answer is they manipulated the situation.
I recently watched Showtime’s “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” as well as ESPN’s 30 for 30 “Sole Man” about shoe legend Sonny Vaccaro, and both touched on how Kobe became a Laker.
In the Showtime film, Bryant reveals that the Lakers were his favorite team growing up. He wanted to play for them and be their next star. In “Sole Man,” Vaccaro, who signed Bryant to an endorsement deal with Adidas and was instrumental in Kobe’s jump to the pros, acknowledges that they wanted Kobe to play for the Lakers. He says they even created a rumor that Kobe would go play pro ball in Italy to dissuade teams from drafting him.
In the film, Vaccaro says then Lakers exec Jerry West loved Kobe so much that he stopped a workout after five minutes because that was all he needed to see of the teenager. West thought Kobe was the best player in the draft. But there was one big problem: the New Jersey Nets really liked Kobe and were picking at No. 8.
Vaccaro says they manipulated the matter by floating a rumor that Bryant would go to Italy.
“It was my duty to inform people: buyer beware. So I had no compunction about going around telling everybody — especially New Jersey — that the possibility existed that Kobe Bryant might go to Italy … and the New Jersey Nets bit,” Vaccaro says in “Sole Man.”
Both sides agree that the story is true.
In 2011, ESPN’s Ian O’Connor wrote a story about how John Calipari, then head coach of the Nets, loved Bryant and wanted to take him, but was scammed out of the pick.
“John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the  draft,” then Nets GM John Nash told O’Connor. “And he got faked out.”
“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari said.
Apparently they fell for the planted story that Kobe would play in Italy. They drafted Kerry Kittles at No. 8 instead, and Kobe slid all the way down to the Hornets at 13.
But it wasn’t just a matter of making up stories, either. Kobe’s camp in some cases straight up told teams he wouldn’t play for them.
In a 1996 article for the Philly Inquirer about the matter, Stephen A. Smith quotes the Sacramento Kings as saying Kobe refused to play for them.
“We got an ultimatum from Kobe, too,” Sacramento Kings player personnel director Jerry Reynolds said. “Not just Charlotte. We were at No. 14, and we were strongly considering taking Kobe, but he was gone.”
Reynolds also says Kobe refused to work out for them before the draft and told them not to draft him.
Bryant’s agent Arn Tellem somewhat says concedes that they manipulated the situation.
“I think what people should understand and respect is that this is a business,” he said. “Most players, when they’re drafted, rarely have the opportunity to have their dreams fulfilled. But we were in a position to do it, so we went for it, and we achieved it. You can’t begrudge anyone for trying to get their career objectives accomplished. Everyone else in this country does that every day of the week.”
Is what Kobe did any worse than what John Elway or Eli Manning did during their drafts? Probably not — this sort of thing happens all the time. But it’s worth revisiting the situation just so we can get a clear look at what goes on behind the scenes in those mysterious, smoke-filled rooms we always hear about.