The summer of 1996 was an inflection point that forever changed the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Five years after Magic Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV, the team had remade itself into a young and exciting squad while missing the playoffs only once. But something was missing.
The team wasn’t close to being a championship contender, and it lacked a true superstar.
In ’96, the biggest and baddest of superstars, Shaquille O’Neal, was available, and the Lakers went all-in on him.
That meant clearing cap space to get him, necessitating trading Vlade Divac, their starting center.
In the meantime, general manager Jerry West worked out a 6-foot-6 high school player from the Philadelphia area named Kobe Bryant. At first, it was merely as a favor to friend and agent Arn Tellem, but West brought the 17-year-old in for a second workout and saw he was special with a capital S.
The executive decided to kill two birds with one stone by trading Divac for a draft pick high enough to net Bryant. West finally found a taker in the Charlotte Hornets, who had the 13th pick.
After a brief scare from the New Jersey Nets, who had interest in Bryant with the eighth pick, the Hornets agreed to draft Bryant as part of the deal.
On July 11, 1996, the deal became official, and Bryant became a Laker.
26 years ago today, Jerry West traded for Kobe Bryant during the 1996 NBA Draft.
“The Logo” knew what was to come next. 🐍 pic.twitter.com/F1bpuId4Ck
— Kobe Highlights & Motivation (@kobehighlight) June 26, 2022
At first, he seemed like nothing more than a by-product of going after O’Neal (who signed with the Lakers days later). But no one, other than perhaps West himself, knew the team had just acquired arguably its greatest player ever.