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‘Three-Ring Circus,’ part 2: How did the Lakers land Kobe Bryant?

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a five-part serialization of “Three-Ring Circus,” Jeff Pearlman’s book about the Lakers era that featured Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. The book, which was written before Bryant’s death in January, was released Tuesday.

Three-Ring Circus
Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
Parts1 2 of 14

The 1996 NBA draft was held on June 26, inside the Continental Airlines Arena, the East Rutherford, New Jersey-based home to the Nets.

At approximately 8 p.m., Commissioner David Stern announced that, with the first pick, the Philadelphia 76ers would take Allen Iverson, the superlative Georgetown guard. The team had worked out Kobe Bryant – “and we loved him,” said Brad Greenberg, the general manager. “But we didn’t need a two-guard. So he wasn’t really considered.”

That was followed by Toronto going with UMass center Marcus Camby and Vancouver selecting Cal’s Shareef Abdur-Rahim. As one player after another came off the board, John Nash, New Jersey’s newly hired general manager, grew excited. One day earlier, Jerry West, the Lakers general manager, had called Nash, offering center Vlade Divac for the Nets’ pick, eighth overall. It took the Nets three seconds to reject the offer, and another three seconds for Nash to turn to the team’s new head coach, John Calipari, and say, “If Jerry West thinks Kobe Bryant is a star – he’s a star.” A few hours later, Nash and Calipari dined with Joe and Pam Bryant.

At one point, Nash silenced the table with his hands and bluntly declared, “If Kobe is there at number 8, we’re going to take him.” Then: “How do you feel about that?” How did they feel about that? The Bryants were elated. Their son would be playing less than 100 miles from home, in a major market, for an organization that coveted him. “That,” Joe replied, “would be wonderful.”

On the afternoon of the draft, Nash and Calipari had lunch with Joe Taub, one of the franchise’s owners, and told him the plan was to take Kobe Bryant and build the Nets around his genius. Taub frowned. “The high school kid?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Nash replied. “Kobe Bryant’s going to be a star in this league.”

“But he’s so young,” Taub replied. “What if we put all this energy into developing him and by the time he’s good he leaves as a free agent? That would be a disaster.”

Nash looked at Calipari, hoping for support. There was none. “Joe,” Nash said, “you don’t get a chance at talent like this very often. Trust me.”

The lunch ended and Nash retreated to his office, still believing the plan was in place. What followed was all sorts of crazy. Calipari received a phone call from Kobe Bryant, who told him he wanted to get away from his parents, that New Jersey was too close to Philadelphia and he needed space. Nash received a call from Arn Tellem, Bryant’s agent who created – in Nash’s words – “some cockamamie story about Kobe having a disagreement with his parents and wanting to head west.” Calipari then received a call from Tellem, who was actually sitting alongside one of his clients, Nets guard Kendall Gill.

“I heard it all,” Gill recalled. “Cal told Arn Tellem the Nets were taking Kobe. And Arn said to him – and this is exactly what he said – ‘John, I swear to God, if you take him we’ll hold out. I have a deal already worked out between the Hornets and Lakers, and you better not mess it up. You’ll pay.’” An ashen Calipari and an exhausted Nash met in the office hallway, and the 37-year-old coach asked the 48-year-old executive what he thought of it all. “Give me an hour,” Nash said. “Something isn’t kosher here.” He proceeded to call Bob Bass, general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, holders of the draft’s 13th pick. Even before Calipari informed him of the Tellem conversation, Nash had heard the rumors of Charlotte and Los Angeles plotting something big. “Bob,” Nash asked, “do you have a deal pending with the Lakers?” Bass hemmed and hawed. Hawed and hemmed. Said a lot, while saying nothing. “It was pretty clear at that moment,” Nash said, “that we were being played.”

As all this was transpiring, Calipari took a call from David Falk, the agent representing Villanova’s All-American guard, Kerry Kittles. Having spent his college career playing a stone’s throw away, Kittles very much wanted to land in New Jersey. That’s why Falk, noted bulldog, told Calipari that unless the Nets picked his client, no one he represented would ever consider playing for the franchise. “So John runs into my office and tells me this,” Nash recalled. “I said, ‘John, come on. You don’t believe this (expletive), do you? It’s all bluster. The family. The agents. It’s total (expletive). Trust me.’”

Calipari didn’t trust Nash. He was still green to the professional game. Really, still green to the game, period. His one head coaching position had come at UMass, and before that he was an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh.

The man had yet to coach a professional contest and barely knew the names of the players on New Jersey’s roster. The Falk threat was terrifying enough. But Calipari was never 100 percent sold on drafting Bryant. He was taking over a team that had finished 30-52 the previous season, and the pressure was real for a young coach with a reputation for making quick fixes. The Nets were paying Calipari a league-high $3 million a year, and that came with final say on all basketball decisions. “We’re not winning with a high school kid,” Caliparisaid to Nash. “You know that, right?”

Lower Merion High School basketball star Kobe Bryant announces that he is foregoing college and will enter the NBA draft. at a press conference in the school gym in Ardmore, Pa. Monday, April 29,1996 (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

“John,” Nash said. “You have a five-year guaranteed contract. Everyone knows this is a building process.” Two hours before the draft was to begin, Nash agreed to see if the Nets could trade down a few slots. That way the team might gain another pick and, perhaps, take Bryant a bit later. Win-win. He called a handful of franchises, but there were no takers. At 6:30, Nash and Calipari met with the team’s full ownership group at the restaurant inside the arena. Everyone sat down. Steak was served. Bottles of wine were opened. There had been so much back-and-forth, but finally Nash was content. He was quite certain how the opening seven picks would go, and that New Jersey was set to grab Kobe Bryant without much drama. There would, of course, be the oohs and aahs of the Nets selecting their first-ever straight-from-high-school player. But the media would love the kid at his introductory press conference. He was poised and wise and savvy beyond his years. There was the whole dad-played-in-the-NBA angle. It was terrific. No, better than terrific. It was …

“I have an announcement to make!” Calipari stood up at the table. Everyone ceased speaking. “If Kerry Kittles is on the board,” he said, “we’re drafting him. And if he’s not there, we’re taking Kobe Bryant.” Nash felt his heart sink. Kittles was a very solid player who would go on to average 14.1 points over eight NBA seasons. He was good without ever being great, steady without ever being spectacular. In fact, Kittles and Bryant had played pickup a couple of times at Saint Joseph’s University, and the Villanova star was impressed. “Kobe was amazing,” Kittles later said. “If I’m making the decision, I’m probably drafting him over me.”

In hindsight, Nash felt that 100 forces of NBA evil were conspiring against him. Calipari was a young, dumb, easily intimidated coach who knew not whereof he spoke. Falk wanted his client happy. The New Jersey owners didn’t aspire to babysit a child. Kobe Bryant wanted to sell sneakers, and Arm Tellem (via Sonny Vaccaro) thought the best place to sell sneakers was Los Angeles. The Charlotte Hornets sought to acquire an in-his-prime NBA center, and the Lakers wanted to acquire the best young prospect their talent evaluators had ever seen. “I still can’t believe Cal let a high school kid bully him,” Jayson Williams, the Nets’ power forward, later said. “I mean, Cal was a bit of a bully himself. So to give up one of the five best players in NBA history because he threatened you? That’s pretty weak, man. That’s pretty damn weak.”

Not long after Kittles went to New Jersey (“I was thrilled!” Kittles said years later), West was on the phone with Bass, the Hornets’ general manager. If all went as planned, and the Mavs, Pacers, Warriors and Cavaliers didn’t grab the high school phenom with their picks, the Hornets would take Bryant at 13, then swap him to Los Angeles for Vlade Divac, who had averaged 12.9 points and 8.6 rebounds in 1995-96. At just 28, he remained one of the NBA’s best centers. West waited. And waited. And waited. “I couldn’t have been any more nervous,” he said later. “We had a lot riding on this.”

When, with the 12th slot, Cleveland grabbed Wright State center Vitaly Potapenko, West shouted gleefully. He dialed Bass’ number.

“Bob, we have a deal?” he said.

“Yup,” Bass replied. “We sure do.”

West immediately called Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner. “Believe it or not,” he crowed, “I think you’ve got the best player in the draft.”

That night, when the final selection was made, Nash was approached by Rod Thorn, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. “I really thought you were taking Kobe Bryant,” he said. “So did Jerry West.”

Nash could barely conceal the pain.

“So did I,” he said, shuffling toward the exit doors. “(Expletive). So did I.”

Coming Wednesday: Part 3 – Could the Lakers add star center Shaquille O’Neal to the mix?

Excerpt from THREE-RING CIRCUS: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by JeffPearlman. Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Pearlman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin HarcourtPublishing Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Orange County Register

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