When you look back at the 1996 draft, it’s always weird to realize Kobe Bryant went No. 13 to the Charlotte Hornets. For one thing, the Charlotte Hornets don’t exist anymore. For another, Kobe Bryant is such a Mr. Laker that it’s so weird to see him in a Hornets draft hat. Plus, guys like Todd Fuller, Samaki Walker and Lorenzen Wright went before him. He’s one of the best players ever, but he went thirteenth. It’s just odd, even though it made a lot of sense back then that NBA teams would be skeptical of a high school guard.
And skeptical they were. Just check out this exchange Kobe had with then-Clippers GM Elgin Baylor. From the New York Post:
Twice he worked out for Clippers’ GM Elgin Baylor … and coach Bill Fitch. After the second, the two dream weavers invited Bryant to lunch.
“They told me it was the two best workouts they’d ever seen,” he said. “That’s it, I figured, I was going be a Clipper and play in L.A. I was pumped!”
Before Bryant had finished his fantasy, his magic carpet ride crashed. Out of nowhere, Baylor and Fitch flipped the switch.
“Your skill level is off the charts. Your athleticism is exceptional. And your energy and enthusiasm are remarkable,” they gushed. “But we can’t draft you.”
Huh? What! Why not?
“Because people out here won’t think we’re serious if we draft a high school kid at No. 7.”
And this is why the Clippers have always been the Clippers. Passing up on Kobe — not a sure thing by any means, but they still obviously know he had potential coming out the face — to take Lorenzen Wright is the kind of classic Clippers whoopsies that has always made them Los Angeles’ second-best team. Though to be fair, they did eventually trade Lorenzen Wright for Quentin Richardson AND Chris Wilcox (who turned in to Vladimir Radmanovic) so everything worked out just fine.
But at least they had a reason, no matter how stupid it is. The Clippers were a joke of a franchise, so if they were trying to gain some league-wide respect, at least you can understand where they were coming from. The Hornets though, they really had no idea what was going on.
At some point soon after the Hornets selected Bryant with the No. 13 pick, [Dave Cowens and Bryant] had a private phone conversation that went something like this.
Cowens: “You know what the deal is, right?
Kobe: “Yes, I do.”
Cowens: “Well, that’s good, because we don’t need you anyway.”
Just for the record, the Hornets’ guards back in the 1996-97 season were Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Tony Smith (?), Tony Delk and 37-year-old Ricky Pierce. I am as big of a fan of Muggsy and Tony Delk’s hilariously long arms as the next guy, but it seems like Cowens might have been a little off on his quick dismissal of the future Hall of Famer. Plus, 15 seasons later, Kobe’s still doing his thing for the Lakers while the Hornets are starting Marco Belinelli. Obviously there’s no way to know if Kobe would have stayed with the Hornets this long, but who knows what happens post-Jordan if there’s no Kobe/Shaq pairing in Los Angeles.
Everybody makes draft mistakes. The whole thing is a crapshoot anyways. But passing on Kobe Bryant because you don’t want to look stupid or having some idea about not “needing” him are pretty good ways to guarantee you’ll have an article written about your error a decade-and-a-half down the road, especially if it’s pretty obvious you recognize his talent.
But who cares, five titles are boring anyways. Plus, do you realize how expensive all those championship parades are? Better to just skip that entirely and go on with your Lorenzen Wrights and Tony Smiths. Way good decisions.