When it comes to NBA draft blunders, a few instances come to mind. Each of which includes a player who would develop into an NBA legend. However, in this case, the Nets opted to pass on Kobe Bryant in 1996.
Kobe Bryant is arguably one of the league’s greatest. But, the greatest swing-and-a-miss in NBA Draft history is the Portland Trail Blazers’ selection of one Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Portland left Jordan on the board, the Chicago Bulls selected him at No. 3, and the rest is history.
That was 1984. But 12 years later, there was another gaffe, and unfortunately for the Nets, it involved an eventual NBA legend. Kobe Bryant, who on Wednesday was honored in Los Angeles for “Kobe Bryant Day” was just a 17 year-old kid from Philadelphia in 1996. 12 teams passed on Bryant before Charlotte stopped his fall. Of course, Charlotte made a massive blunder of their own by trading Bryant to the Lakers. But that’s a story for another day.
What makes the Nets inclusion in this story so painful for Nets fans to think about is just how close New Jersey was to selecting Bryant eighth overall. The Nets and first year head coach John Calipari worked Bryant out multiple times before the 1996 draft. The Nets were enamored with the skills that Bryant possessed.
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And there were connections to the Nets that would have made the Bryant pick viable. John Nash, New Jersey’s GM at the time, was well aware of Bryant’s ability even before bringing him in for workouts. It was clear that the Nets had interest.
Leading up to the draft, the Nets very well might have been picturing Bryant in a Nets uniform, imagining the heights that he would one day take the franchise to. “We were ready to take Kobe” then-Nets owner Joe Taub told ESPN.com in 2015. “But then a lot of things happened with management and the agent and things changed [on draft] night.”
Essentially, just prior to the draft, Bryant and his camp convinced the Nets that he would not play there. With his Italian ties, Bryant even floated the idea of playing in Italy instead of playing in New Jersey for the Nets. It’s a lot easier to look back now and say the Nets made a mistake, but in their defense, the regime didn’t want to risk a high pick on a player who potentially would never suit up for the team.
Unfortunately, it backfired in a big way.
Bryant was known to be infatuated with the Lakers, and his camp was pushing the career benefits of being based in Los Angeles over New Jersey. The Nets, essentially, were convinced not to select Bryant, and chose Kerry Kittles instead.
Overall, this isn’t uncommon. To use a more current example, Stephen Curry‘s camp told the Minnesota Timberwolves — who passed on Curry twice in the 2009 Draft — that the Davidson guard would not play there. Minnesota almost assuredly regrets passing on Curry, but they may have felt that their hands were tied. The same can likely be said for the Nets in 1996.
Still, though, if the Nets did select Bryant, there’s no telling how much would’ve changed for the franchise. For starters, Calipari likely wouldn’t have lost his job. Depending on the success he could’ve had in New Jersey, that could’ve had ramifications for College Basketball as well.
Bryant of course went on to win five NBA titles. It’s hard to say how many he would have won with the Nets, but we can say with certainty that his presence would have made New Jersey a destination for other big-time players. Much like Miami’s Big 3 wanted to convene in South Beach, and Kevin Durant wanted to join the Warriors, it’s easy to see how players would’ve wanted to come to New Jersey to join Bryant.
In many peoples’ mind, Jason Kidd is regarded as the best player to don a Nets uniform. No disrespect to Kidd, or Julius Erving, for that matter, but that designation would belong to Bryant if the Nets selected him. Speaking of Kidd, can you imagine he and Kobe on the same Nets teams? That’s a Big 3 (or 4) waiting to happen.
As the basketball world looks back on Kobe Bryant day with admiration of an All-Time great, those within the 1996 Nets may be kicking themselves that one of the best ever got away.