NEWARK, N.J. – John Calipari brought Kobe Bryant to New Jersey three times that spring to work out.
This was 1996. Cal was the new coach of the New Jersey Nets, fresh out of the college ranks at Massachusetts. Bryant was a high schooler from suburban Philadelphia, the first modern player who was academically qualified for college to say he was jumping straight to the NBA anyway.
The Nets had the eighth pick overall, too high, many said, for an unproven 18-year-old. With each drill Cal ran Bryant through at the Fairleigh Dickinson University gym, he grew convinced otherwise.
“If you watched the workouts, you’d say either this kid has been taught to fool us in the workouts or he’s ridiculous,” Calipari said, back here in Jersey, now preparing his Kentucky Wildcats for a Sweet 16 game Friday against Ohio State.
“I worked him out three times and I thought I was losing my mind. Obviously I wasn’t. He was really good. I’d brought him in a third time because I just said, ‘I’ve got to see this kid again because this is ridiculous.’ “
This was no simple choice, though, and it can be argued it was a choice that 15 years later still reverberates throughout basketball – from the Nets to the Los Angeles Lakers to Kobe and Cal and, indeed, all the way to the University of Kentucky.
The circumstances made things tricky. Calipari was just weeks into his NBA life. Kobe wasn’t Kobe yet. The league’s prevailing wisdom was to choose experience – college juniors or seniors. It was a man’s league, and Bryant was a cocksure kid trying to buck the system.
Bryant also had powerhouse representation, rising agent Arn Tellem and Adidas rep Sonny Vaccaro, who had staked millions on Bryant right out of Lower Merion High School. At first, Tellem wanted Cal to draft Bryant and kept sending Kobe to FDU to cause jaws to drop.
Then the Lakers stepped in and requested a workout. L.A. was picking 24th, but Tellem was interested – better franchise, bigger market, more Adidas flying off the shelves. The Lakers set it up at the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Kobe matching up with Dontae Jones, a big, physical, 6-foot-8 senior who had just led Mississippi State to the Final Four. It was no contest; Kobe destroyed Jones from the word “go.”
“I remember [Lakers general manager] Jerry West coming down from the stands after just a little while and saying, ‘Shut down the workout,’ ” Vaccaro said. “He didn’t need to see any more. That was it. Game over.”
There was no way to get Bryant to drop all the way to the Lakers, so West began working potential trades. If Kobe could get to Charlotte at 13, he said, the Lakers could trade Vlade Divac for the young phenom. Team Bryant wanted it to happen.
Only Calipari still was enthralled. Tellem spun a 180 and now began claiming Bryant wouldn’t show up in Jersey, began saying they’d send the kid to play pro ball in Italy, where he’d spent much of his youth. Everyone now admits it was an idle threat.
“Arn [wanted the Nets to draft him] until he knew he could get him to the Lakers,” Calipari said. “Then he was against it. Arn was all over me, and then all of a sudden [I] get the call the day before the draft.”
Some people told Cal to stand strong and not get pushed around. Others suggested the safe pick – promising Villanova senior guard Kerry Kittles. It was the call of a lifetime.
“Everybody knows that I was talked out of [it],” Calipari said.
He picked Kittles, a good player with bad knees. Bryant went to Charlotte, then L.A. The Lakers have won five NBA titles and counting with him. The Nets have won zero. Calipari was fired in 1999, his shooting star of a career suddenly plummeting to earth only to slowly be rebuilt.
Now Cal is back in Jersey, standing in a back hall of the Prudential Center, recounting this 15-year-old draft-day decision on the eve of a big NCAA tournament game.
It’s funny because no one else has to answer for not picking Kobe Bryant in the 1996 lottery – not the Clippers, who took Lorenzen Wright; not the Cavaliers, who took Vitaly Potapenko; not the Grizzlies, who took Shareef Abdur-Rahim; not the Warriors, who took Todd Fuller; not the Mavericks, who took Samaki Walker; and so on and so on.
Cal’s sin was almost taking Kobe Bryant. He shrugs. It’s a lot easier to discuss now, when he’s on top of his game at Kentucky, when his career is back in the stratosphere.
“Look, it all played out for everybody,” he said. “I’m telling you I enjoyed coaching Kerry Kittles. Could it have turned out differently? Would [Kobe] have stayed in New Jersey? How about he says, ‘I’m not staying here. I’m not going to be here; I’m going to get traded in a year or two.’ All sorts of stuff could’ve happened.”
Besides, Bryant was a handful to coach early in his career. He still can be. Hindsight offers no guarantees.
Calipari has long gotten over the bitterness of getting fired. It was humiliating – he wanted to spend the day after with the covers over his head, until his wife, Ellen, made him get up and go out in public. She took him to Positano’s, an Italian restaurant near their then-home in Franklin Lakes so he could realize life goes on. Rather than being met with scorn, Cal was told by a guy who came over to his table that he’d never buy a Nets ticket again.
From that day, Calipari has rebuilt his whole career.
“It was the best experience,” he said. “Two things. I’m a better coach to better prepare these young people, which is what my job is. And two, it’s a humbling thing when you step in and they say, ‘We don’t want you. Just beat it. You’re out. You can’t do this job.’
“Now there’s some self-reflection. Where did this go south? What do I need to do to improve? And I’m still learning that.”
Calipari is in his second season at Kentucky, “one of those jobs that you work your entire career to be a part of.”
He has a young, dangerous team, yet in many ways this is what passes for a rebuilding year for him. He’s in the Sweet 16 as a four seed, not a one seed like he’d prefer. He has the nation’s top recruiting class coming in next season, when the Wildcats will be a favorite to win it all. At UK, he’ll always be a player on the national scene.
Yes, it played out fine in the end. No regrets. Yes, he should’ve picked Kobe Bryant 15 years ago, should’ve pushed back and called the Italy bluff, should’ve hoped he could’ve gotten that young superstar to carry him and the Nets’ franchise to unimaginable heights.
One door closed that day. But the one that eventually opened and brought John Calipari back here to Jersey has been pretty good, too.