Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 6, 2015. Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the 1996 NBA draft.
Picture this: It’s another steamy June day in 2016. The streets of Newark are eerily empty at lunchtime. Most are glued to televisions to watch a live news conference held inside the city’s downtown basketball arena.
With the rapid clickclickclick of shutters from photographers’ cameras, he walks in with his familiar swagger-filled strut. Dressed in a splendid gray suit, he’s accompanied by his wife, Vanessa, his children and family.
After 20 seasons and arguably the greatest basketball career the New York metropolitan area has ever seen, Kobe Bryant is ready to announce his retirement as the greatest New Jersey Net of all time.
With his former coaches John Calipari and Phil Jackson, and ex-teammates such as Jayson Williams, Sam Cassell, Kendall Gill and Shaquille O’Neal — OK, maybe not Shaq — in attendance, Bryant finishes a Derek Jeteresque run underneath the championship banners he brought to an arena he helped build in downtown Newark.
Sound insane? Sure, but what if the New Jersey Nets had just stuck with their gut and selected a high school kid out of Lower Merion (Pa.) High School eighth overall instead of Villanova’s Kerry Kittles in the 1996 NBA draft?
It is one of the great what-ifs in NBA history. The fortunes of one of the most star-crossed franchises in sports could have changed overnight.
“It changes the landscape of basketball,” says Jason Kidd, a Net from 2001 to ’08. “It would have made New Jersey an attractive place, a basketball hotbed with a player like that. When you have a player like Kobe Bryant and what he can do, he would definitely have gotten talent.
“And maybe Shaq would have been one of those pieces.”
As a 17-year-old coming out of Lower Merion (Pa.) HS, Bryant was coveted by NBA and college teams alike. Rusty Kennedy/AP PhotoThe Bluff
It was June 1996 and the No. 1 song in the country was “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Coincidentally, the Nets found themselves at their own crossroads.
Calipari faced a dilemma as he entered his first NBA draft after being hired by the Nets’ owners, known by many as the “Secaucus Seven.” The former UMass head coach was fixated on a can’t-miss high school prospect named Kobe Bryant. The Nets had worked out Bryant three times and each time the high school guard wowed Nets management.
During one of the workouts at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Bryant was pitted against two Nets players — Ed O’Bannon and Khalid Reeves. O’Bannon was the team’s ninth overall pick in 1995 after a decorated college career that included a national championship, the Final Four most outstanding player award and the John Wooden award.
And yet, the 17-year-old Bryant relentlessly attacked O’Bannon during the workout.
“If you watched the workouts,” Calipari said to ESPN’s Ian O’Connor in 2011, “you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he’s ridiculous.”
John Nash, the team’s general manager, had deep Philadelphia ties and he knew all about the high school phenom who was creating a buzz throughout the Philadelphia basketball circle.
Nash used to have weekly conversations with former NBA player John Lucas, who oversaw some basketball workouts at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue in Philadelphia, where pros such as Jerry Stackhouse worked out.
“I called John Lucas once a week and asked how his guys were doing,” Nash recalled. “[One time] I said, ‘What about Stack?’ Lucas said, ‘Well, he is the second best 2-guard in the gym.’ So I asked who is the best because I am trying to figure out in my mind who is [better than Stackhouse]. Lucas says, ‘Oh, Kobe kicks his ass every day.’
“The legend of Kobe was very vivid in my mind.”
On the night before the draft, Nets management entertained Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J., where Calipari had temporary residence on the top floor in a presidential suite. Everybody seemed to be on board with Bryant’s becoming Calipari’s first NBA draft pick.
“We were ready to take Kobe,” said Joe Taub, one of the Nets’ primary owners then. “But then a lot of things happened with management and the agent and things changed that [draft] night.”
Things changed rapidly in the hours before the draft and something didn’t smell right to the Nets. Having grown up a Lakers fan, Bryant wanted to be a Laker — and he knew there was a good chance it could happen. A smitten Jerry West had already begun making plans to land Bryant with a deal involving Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick.
The teams between the Nets and Hornets — Dallas, Indiana, Golden State and Cleveland — didn’t seem to be interested in Bryant and all would end up drafting big men.
The Lakers just needed Bryant to convince Calipari and the Nets that the high schooler wouldn’t play for the Nets under any circumstance. According to Nash, Bryant’s camp called him and Calipari and told them he wouldn’t play for the Nets. Playing overseas in Italy was mentioned although Nash said he never bought it. There were, however, other factors conspiring against the Nets.
“Arn was a friend of mine as well. We had a little bit of a falling out for a period of time after that because he and Kobe kind of misrepresented what was going on. But they did what they had to do. They bluffed and won. It was all a bluff.”
Former Nets GM John Nash
“[Adidas sneaker maven] Sonny Vaccaro at the time [was an influence since] Kobe was going to wear Adidas and he was going to make more money in L.A. than he was going to make in New Jersey,” Nash said. “A Lakers Adidas contract was worth a lot more than a Jersey Adidas contract. There were so many variables.
“Arn Tellem was involved and was very close to the Lakers,” Nash continued. “Arn was a friend of mine as well. We had a little bit of a falling out for a period of time after that because he and Kobe kind of misrepresented what was going on. But they did what they had to do. They bluffed and won. It was all a bluff.”
In his first big decision, Calipari was feeling the pressure from everywhere. Taub wanted a small forward like Syracuse’s John Wallace to come in and play right away. Super agent David Falk called to tell Calipari to take the safe choice in Kittles, who had played all four years at Villanova.
In the end, Calipari didn’t want to start his pro coaching career with the risk of making a potentially embarrassing choice and taking a high school kid who apparently didn’t want to be in New Jersey.
“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari told O’Connor. “But let me say this, the opportunity to coach Kerry Kittles, I wouldn’t give up for anything. I love Kerry Kittles, and I said at the time he’ll be better than Kobe these first couple of years, but in five years Kobe’s going to be off the charts.”
Of course, six years into their careers, Bryant won his third championship at Kittles’ expense when the Lakers swept the Kidd-led Nets in the Finals.
Bryant went to Charlotte, which traded him to LA. But what if the Nets had not passed on him? NBAE via Getty ImagesThe butterfly effect
The butterfly effect, a term coined by the late mathematician and MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz after which the 2004 motion picture was named, is based on the notion that “a small disturbance like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can induce enormous consequences.”
So what if Calipari had listened to Nash and called the bluff?
“The kid tricked everybody,” Williams says with a laugh. “He bluffed and we didn’t call it. He ended up being one of the greatest players. But we got an excellent player in Kerry.”
Bryant as a Net would have sent enormous ripples throughout the NBA universe and drastically altered careers and the destinies of some of the biggest personalities in the sport from Bryant to West to Calipari to Kidd to Shaq.
“It would have changed the course of NBA history, it is that simple,” said YES Network’s Ian Eagle, the voice of the Nets for the past 22 seasons. “It would have been one of the most profound domino effects the league has ever seen. For Kobe to be in the New York area, with a team that was thirsting for respect and credibility, he’s exactly what the franchise needed.”
Consider just some of the permutations:
• If Kobe had become a Net, perhaps it erases the Lakers’ 2000s dynasty and five championships, including their three-peat.
• Does Shaq spend eight of his most successful seasons in Los Angeles with the Lakers?
• Does Jackson ever become the Lakers coach? Or would he have coached the Nets, with whom he flirted with about the job in 1999?
“[Nets ownership] captured my imagination with it, but Jayson Williams had just went down with a serious fractured leg,” Jackson said before the 2002 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Nets. “He was a $90 million player. A lot of things were happening; Stephon [Marbury] had just been traded for. [But] I believe they had a vision.”
• With Kobe, maybe the Nets successfully negotiated a beautiful basketball arena in Newark under Lewis Katz’s and Raymond Chambers’ ownership group and are never sold and moved to Brooklyn.
• If the Nets had made Newark their new home, perhaps Shaq finds his way back to the place he was born with some convincing from Kobe and Phil.
“It is interesting to think about,” says current Nets center Brook Lopez, who grew up a Lakers fan. “Shaq is from Newark, a lot of interesting variables there. It would be a vastly different league. Can you imagine Kobe just going through his 20th season out here?
“Very different. But would Phil have had to come out here? With the triangle offense for the Nets?”
The alternate realities are endless. The triangle offense wouldn’t be in New York right now, it would be in New Jersey. A superstar talent such as Bryant could’ve helped the Nets own the rival Knicks in the post-Patrick Ewing era.
“It’s always been a struggle for the Nets [in the area],” Eagle said. “Kobe Bryant is a transcendent player. Think of a generation of basketball fans growing up watching Kobe Bryant playing in the New Jersey area.
“That was a time when the Nets could have made some traction in the market place — the end of the Pat Riley Knicks. It was there for the taking.”
• Do the Nets still have the seventh pick in 1997 and are able to trade it in a package for Keith Van Horn?
• Does Stephon Marbury still end up becoming a Net in a trade in 1999? Does Calipari still get fired a few games after that trade? And if there’s no Marbury, Williams might’ve never broken his leg (Marbury rolled into Williams’ leg), which effectively ended his career.
“If it was going to be that situation, s—, maybe we should have taken Kobe,” Williams laughs.
• And perhaps there’s no Kidd and no Rod Thorn — the architects of the Nets teams that made back-to-back Finals runs.
What would Calipari, Cassell and Gill have done with Bryant on their team? Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty ImagesNo question: Kobe’s greatness
What most do not question, however, is as a Net, Bryant still would have fulfilled his vast potential despite New Jersey’s disappointing past with young talent such as Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson.
“Yes, no matter what,” says Kidd, who understood fully the challenges of succeeding in New Jersey. “That is just who [Kobe] is. He is one of the best of all time.”
Williams says Bryant’s relentless desire to win and supreme confidence in his own talent could have either transformed or torn the Nets apart.
“I practiced with Michael Jordan during the 1998 All-Star Game,” Williams said. “And Jordan would beat you up because you are not playing hard enough. From all the stuff that I see with Kobe, he is one of those guys who comes in and works hard [like Jordan] … he’s got a different kind of mentality.”
Williams and some others wonder how Bryant might’ve fit in with the Nets as a teenager. The Nets opened that 1996-97 season with Robert Pack, O’Bannon, Gill, Williams and Shawn Bradley.
By the trade deadline, the Nets made a deal with Dallas to acquire Cassell, Chris Gatling, Jim Jackson, George McCloud and Eric Montross for Bradley, O’Bannon, Pack and Reeves.
The Nets won only 26 games that season. Kittles averaged 16.4 points while Bryant averaged only 15.5 minutes and 7.6 points as a rookie with the Lakers.
ESPN Insider’s Bradford Doolittle re-configured NBA rosters to put Bryant on the Nets for his first two seasons and replayed the schedules using a historical simulator made by Dave Koch Sports. According to the simulator, the 1996-97 Nets would have finished 19-63 with Bryant, who averaged 7.6 points in 15.7 minutes. The simulator had Kittles scoring 12.1 points per game for the Lakers, who finished 53-29 with a first-round playoff series loss to Minnesota.
The following season, the Nets had the seventh pick in the draft but traded the rights to Tim Thomas along with Jackson, Montross and Anthony Parker in a deal for second overall pick Van Horn.
“I don’t know how much leverage a 17-year-old kid can have. At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere — Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn’t matter.”
Kobe Bryant, in 2002
Nash says he thinks the Nets would have won more with Bryant that first season and perhaps ended up with a lower pick and not have been able to trade for Van Horn. If the Nets had ended up with, say, the ninth pick overall in 1997, another prep prospect named Tracy McGrady was selected by Toronto at that pick that year.
“A year later [after passing on Bryant], we brought McGrady in,” former Nets executive Bobby Marks said. “Tracy was good. But he was not near [Kobe’s] level, even at that age. He was very respectful but he had that certain kind of killer instinct even at 18-19 years old.”
For this exercise, let’s assume the Nets still end up with Van Horn. The Nets that season with Kittles and Van Horn won 43 games and made the playoffs, before being swept by Jordan and the Bulls in the first round.
Imagine what a Bryant versus Jordan first-round series would have been like.
And how good could a Nets’ team with Bryant, Cassell, Williams, Van Horn and Gill have been? Doolittle’s simulation had that cast going 45-37 in 1997-98 and earning the fifth seed before being swept by Charlotte in the first round with Bryant averaging 25.3 points in the playoff games. The simulator also had the Lakers winning 66 games with Kittles as sixth man.
“I think [Kobe’s] talent would have been right from the start as it was in L.A.,” Nash said. “I think it would have enabled us to hitch our wagon to a young man who was going to become a bona fide All-Star for a significant period of time, maybe the best player in the league.”
There’s little doubt that whether in N.J. or L.A., Bryant would have fulfilled his potential. Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesStumbling blocks
Certainly, the Nets weren’t the most stable organization. Fans of the franchise felt cursed by horrific luck such as Drazen Petrovic’s death in 1993 and Williams’ shattered leg.
Bryant certainly would have had to overcome road blocks that come with playing for a losing franchise, obstacles he didn’t have with the Lakers.
“At that time, New Jersey, the entire organization had a tremendous inferiority complex,” Nash said. “And the fear was you are going to take this high school kid, develop him, he is going to become a very good player and then become a free agent and he is not going to want to re-sign and is going to want to leave. I found that very, very frustrating.
“What could have happened is Kobe could have become very disgruntled and disappointed and maybe would have sulked. And maybe he wouldn’t have flourished in New Jersey.”
The Nets would have had Bryant under his rookie contract for three seasons before free agency. Perhaps Bryant just leaves or demands a trade at some point. And what of Calipari? As a younger coach, Calipari’s style didn’t always mesh with the veterans. And he was brutal on Kittles.
“One time Calipari yelled at [Kerry] so much he [slipped and] fell down,” Williams said. “During a timeout [Calipari] walked up yelling ‘Kerry! You are going to give me a f—ing aneurysm.’ I will never forget that. We were at the Garden getting our ass whooped.”
“I feel bad because a lot of people define Kerry over that pick. If you look at Kerry’s time with the Nets, he was an awesome player. But who would have thought Kobe would be the second-best player in the world?”
While the yelling only increased in New Jersey, Williams watched Bryant blossom in Los Angeles.
“Once you saw Kobe after 40 games, people were like holy … this guy is going to be a superstar. Cal was under tremendous pressure,” Williams said. “I feel bad because a lot of people define Kerry over that pick.
“If you look at Kerry’s time with the Nets, he was an awesome player. But who would have thought Kobe would be the second-best player in the world?”
If Kobe had gone to New Jersey maybe a different arena would be standing in place of the Prudential Center? Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesA new Newark?
By 1999, Calipari was fired after a 3-17 start. The new ownership group led by Katz and Chambers wanted to win. They traded for Marbury and had their eyes on building a Newark arena.
That ownership group even had an artist-rendering vision reel made in 1998 to promote the move to politicians and sponsors and create support for a new arena. The video was of NBC’s opening to what would have been the 2002 NBA Finals complete with NBC’s NBA jingle and it hyped up a future Finals “in downtown Newark” between Bryant and O’Neal’s Lakers and the New Jersey Nets. That duel would actually play out four years later, but in East Rutherford. There were plenty of political road blocks that prevented the Nets from getting their own basketball arena in Newark and ultimately forced Katz and Chambers to sell, which later led to the team moving to Brooklyn.
A talent like Bryant, though, could have perhaps made the difference.
“They probably would have never gotten sold and they probably would have flourished in a new building in downtown Newark with a drawing point,” Marks says. “I don’t think you would have ever had to move because [Kobe] would have been such a drawing card.”
In contrast to the run-and-gun Kidd teams in the early 2000s that played before a nearly empty Continental Airlines Arena nightly, Bryant probably would have been a box-office draw.
Kidd says he believes Bryant also would have attracted premier talent to New Jersey, perhaps even including himself.
“With that type of player,” Kidd says, “that is once in a lifetime.”
“Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey. … Didn’t matter”
Five years after the Nets passed on Bryant, the Lakers’ All-Star reminded them of what could have been during fantastic duel with Marbury on Feb. 13, 2001, at Continental Airlines Arena.
Marbury delivered one of his best games as a Net, exploding for 50 points and 12 assists. But Bryant had the last laugh, scoring a 3-point play with 4.8 seconds left to play in overtime to beat the Nets and his former Lakers mentor, head coach Byron Scott.
Bryant was asked in the postgame interview whether he would have played for the Nets if drafted by New Jersey.
“What I recall is [Kobe] said ‘absolutely,’ and then smiled with that big million-dollar smile and said something to the effect that the [Nets would have been] good, and it wouldn’t be like it is now [in New Jersey],” Eagle said.
By 2002, Bryant added his third championship at the Nets’ expense. Before the Finals began, Bryant was asked about strong-arming the Nets on draft night.
“Arn Tellem had something to do with that,” Bryant explained on the eve of the 2002 NBA Finals. “I don’t know how much leverage a 17-year-old kid can have.
“At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere — Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn’t matter.”
For ex-owner Taub, there’s no looking back.
“It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback,” Taub said. “Kobe could have broken a leg. So many things happen that are speculative. From a management point of view, you could judge it every way you want.
“We decided to go the other way for better or worse [and] he turns out to be this great player. One of the greatest.”