18 years ago, at the 1996 NBA Draft in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Charlotte Hornets held the 13th pick in the draft. They came into the evening looking to land a center and found a willing partner in the Los Angeles Lakers, who were shopping Vlade Divac in order to open up cap space to pursue a free agent center named Shaquille O’Neal. To acquire Divac, the Hornets selected a 17 year old teenager named Kobe Bryant with their first round pick and sent him to the Lakers.
Kobe showed off his athleticism right off the bat. In a pre-season game as a rookie, he posterized a much-younger Ben Wallace:
However, the transition from high school to the pros was difficult for Kobe. In his rookie season, he averaged just 15.5 minutes per game, and put up averages of 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists, shooting 41.7 percent from the field.
In the playoffs during his rookie year, Kobe infamously put up four airballs in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz. The Lakers were eliminated in five games:
When you look back now, the deal seems lopsided especially when you consider Kobe’s five championship rings. But at the time, that was not the case. While Kobe was still a high-risk high-reward asset for the Lakers, Divac solidified the Hornets frontcourt. Charlotte won a franchise record 54 games in the 1996-97 season while Divac started 81 games and averaged 12.9 points and 8.6 rebounds for them. The Hornets were upset by the Knicks in the first round.
When Bob Bass, general manager of the Hornets who pulled the trigger on the draft night deal, looks back on the trade, he remembers how much of an unknown Kobe was on draft night:
“Let’s start out this way,” Bass said. “There had never been a high school player come into the league that didn’t play in the front court.”
Bass offered examples such as Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Kevin Garnett.
“Secondly, 12 other teams passed on Kobe Bryant; 12 other teams said, ‘I don’t want him.’ The Nets even got a workout. He refused to work out with us. He didn’t work out with anybody. We had talks on the trade, but we didn’t make it for about 3 1/2 weeks. We had a chance to get a 7-foot-(1) center who had been very successful in the league.
“You add all those three things together, that’s why the decision was made. Plus, he couldn’t make a jump shot when he first came into the league. We won 54 the first year Divac was there and 51 the next year. The only problem with that (Hornets) team was Michael Jordan was in his hey-day and Patrick Ewing had that great New York team. And we were in the Eastern Conference. That’s what happened on that.”
You can imagine Bass has probably looked back on this trade several times over the years and wondered: what if I had kept Kobe?
For the Lakers, almost 20 years after acquiring Mamba, they head into the 2014-15 season with him still entrenched as the centerpiece of their roster. There might have been a lot of growing pains along the way, but no one in Los Angeles has any regrets about letting Divac go.
As for Kobe, he has not forgotten either:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) July 1, 2014
What do you think?
Follow steven lebron on Twitter at @steven_lebron.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE