Kobe smiles at the thought of the Alternate History Late-1990s Tar Heels. (Allen Berezovsky/WireImage)
It's long been taken as an article of faith that, had Kobe Bryant not elected to turn pro straight out of high school, he would have traveled south from Lower Merion High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia to Durham, N.C., to enroll at Duke University and join up with Mike Krzyzewski's squad. As we all know, that wasn't to be — Bryant entered the 1996 NBA draft, went 13th overall to the Charlotte Hornets and was promptly flipped to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Vlade Divac in a trade that set up the next decade-plus of Lakers glory — but over the years, Kobe and Coach K have developed a strong bond through their shared successes with USA Basketball, and the 15-time All-Star has said there's "no maybe" about what his college choice would have been.
Well, as it turns out, there may well have been a maybe. (Maybe.)
During "Kobe Up Close," a special one-on-one conversation between the superstar shooting guard and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel held Thursday at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles to raise money for the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Foundation to fight homelessness, the Mamba told those in attendance that, if he'd decided to play NCAA ball, he actually would have chosen a lighter shade of blue. From Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:
Defying urban legend that he was Duke-bound, had he gone to college instead of the NBA straight out of high school, Bryant said he was leaning toward North Carolina. "I love [Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski]," Bryant said. "The truth has to come out."
Why North Carolina? Vince Carter, a Tar Heel, was one of the top guards in the country at the time. "I want to play against him, every single day," Bryant said.
Whether or not you believe Bryant's change in tune, the logic behind that theoretical decision — choosing to go to a program where there was already a highly touted McDonald's All-American with three years of eligibility remaining in place at his position because getting to work against him every day would make him better, because steel sharpens steel — is classic Kobe. And it's not like the 180-degree turn comes out of nowhere — UNC was one of many schools to come after Kobe in high school, alongside Duke, Kansas and Krzyzewski's alma mater, West Point, and as Bryant told Peter Vecsey of the New York Post last year, he cherished the recruitment letter he received from legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith:
“I couldn’t wait to read it, but I didn’t want to do it with people looking over my shoulder,” recounted a roused Bryant. “So I opened it quietly during English class while the teacher was talking.”
Smith said he had heard how well Kobe had played against UNC’s Jerry Stackhouse (third pick of ’95 draft, by the 76ers) and knew it was all but certain he would turn pro when he graduated.
“However, by any chance, if you change your mind, I want you to know I’m holding a scholarship for you.”
Does Bryant still have the letter?
“Are you kidding, bro! Of course, I still have it! It’s from Dean bleepin’ Smith!”
Like Patrick Ewing's recent revelation that he might have chosen UNC if not for a Ku Klux Klan rally that took place during his official visit, Kobe's claim lends itself to some neat thought experiments and what-ifs.
With a freshman Bryant on-board, would the super-stacked 1996-97 Tar Heels — which featured not only Carter, but also lottery pick Antawn Jamison, talented New York City point guards Shammond Williams and Ed Cota, and international big men Serge Zwikker and Ademola Okulaja — have bettered their 28-7 mark and made it past Lute Olsen's Arizona Wildcats (powered by Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon and Jason Terry) in the national semifinals? Would Dean still have decided to hang 'em up after that season, or stuck around to take another crack (or two) at the national title? Would Smith have gotten to cut down the nets one more time?
Would the "steel sharpens steel" idea have worked both ways, hardening Carter in his formative years and making him into more of a killer before he ever reached the pros? If so, how much differently does his career — whether in terms of actual accomplishment or just the structure of its narrative — unfold? Would Kobe have been an NCAA short-timer or — if he'd been relegated largely to sixth-man duties with Carter entrenched at the two — would he have waited for his time to star, possibly as a junior with the '98-'99 team? A peaking Bryant surely would have pushed the Tar Heels past a first-round upset at the hands of Weber State, right?
And, from an NBA perspective, if Kobe delays his entry into the league by a season (or two, or three), how much does that impact his development. Are we still talking about the best non-Michael Jordan shooting guard in NBA history, or does Kobe wind up occupying a slightly lower place in the firmament?
It's plenty of fun to think about these things, even if they go absolutely nowhere. It'd be even more fun if Kobe was a couple of years older, because that would mean he would've wound up at UNC with Stack and Rasheed Wallace, and that team would have been bananas. Quick, everyone, to their video-game system and college hoops title of choice for Create-a-Player-ing!
Other items of note from "Kobe Up Close" included:
• Bryant's not sure he'll be ready for the start of the Lakers' season, an Opening Night matchup with in-house rivals the Los Angeles Clippers: "I don't know if I'll be ready for opening night. I really don't know. I know I'm really, really ahead of schedule." This doesn't really qualify as a shocking bulletin, considering he had surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon four months ago, but considering all the talk of record-shattering recovery and Jim Buss wagers, it's worth noting. The Nick Young Era draws nigh, y'all.
• Speaking of the Lakers' fellow Staples Center tenants, Bryant shared a story about his dealings with the Clippers back before the 1996 NBA draft that set the L.A. crowd to groaning and laughing:
It's a pretty amazing story that the Mamba's told before, perhaps most notably to Vecsey, who also related the back-and-forth between Bryant and Hall of Famer Dave Cowens, the head coach of the Hornets at the time:
At some point soon after the Hornets selected Bryant with the No. 13 pick, the two 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.”
Kobe is as stupefied and infuriated now as he was then.
“Can you believe someone would say something like that to a 17-year-old!” he says, his face one-third smile, one-third scowl and one-third sinister. “That really threw me. It really hurt. Especially since it came from him. I knew about Dave Cowens. I knew what a great player he was. I followed his career. I looked up to him because he played so hard and showed so much passion. That spit just blew me away!”
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that "spit" wasn't the word Kobe used.
• Kobe's advice on advice:
Kobe on giving advice: "I'm not the patient type to try to give advice. Get your ass in gear. If you want to do something, do it."
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) August 16, 2013
Pretty cool advice on advice.
• What impressed Bryant most the first time he met eventual teammate/championship partner/nemesis Shaquille O'Neal? "I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that he had a cellphone that was the biggest in the world." I mean, sure — it's why children of the '80s thought Zack Morris was the coolest person in the universe, too. (Well, that and Kelly.)
• On the issue of where Bryant will be after his contract expires following this season:
"Are you certain that you'll be a Laker for life?" Kimmel asked.
"Yeah," Bryant said.
Provided the Brink's truck backs up, of course.
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