Kobe Bryant should’ve been a New Jersey Net. And, yes, I’m sober while typing these words. While the first statement may seem blasphemous to some, nearly two decades ago, the idea nearly became a fact. Follow me if you will.
In June 1996, the annual NBA Draft took place in New Jersey at The Prudential Center, the Nets home arena. During an already wild draft that saw Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen’s draft rights swapped, along with Shareef Abdur-Rahim becoming the highest drafted freshman ever, there was speculation amid the room about then Nets coach John Calipari’s interest in Kobe Bryant, an uber-talented high school wing player out of Philadelphia. Already locked and loaded on the defensive front line, it was no secret that New Jersey was in need of a wing scorer to boost their porous offensive ranking.
Gushing over Bryant’s skill and potential after seeing him throughout his high school career and in pre-draft workouts, people were waiting to see if he would actually bite at the prep star with the seventh pick. Another rumored possibility was pulling the trigger and drafting a more proven commodity like Villanova’s star wing player and local favorite Kerry Kittles. Even draft commentators Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino broached the subject repeatedly, adding fuel to the fire.
When all was said and done, Coach Cal opted to go with Kittles, thus dropping the ball and the greatest scorer of our generation. When asked why he chose Kittles instead of Bryant, Calipari stated that even though Kobe Bryant was a “great player,” he felt that with the position the Nets were in as a team and franchise Kerry was the better overall fit. Kobe would eventually fall to Charlotte at the 13th pick and would be traded to the Lakers. After that, I’m pretty sure you know the rest.
But what would have became of Kobe had Coach Cal decided to select Kobe instead of Kittles? Yes, Bryant was one of the most talented prep players scouts had ever seen, but would he have flourished and become the closest thing to MJ we’ve seen thus far? Would his will to win and gym rat tendencies carry over well with an organization whose fans were once known to wear paper bags over their heads due to the tragic events happening on the court, year after year?
Coach Cal’s tenure in the NBA was short-lived to say the least, but would it have been extended by having a talent like the Black Mamba in the fold? We all know coaches’ fates are more determined by the strength of their roster than their actual coaching skills, and the Nets lineup was pretty much anemic.
But maybe Bryant would’ve started off his career more LeBron than Pippen (a phenomenal player struggling to break out of the shadow of his more dominant teammate), and carried the Nets to respectability à la King James’ memorable early playoff runs with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Would Kobe still be Top 10 dead or alive had he went to the Nets, or would he have become Martell Webster?
Since all of these questions are hypothetical, we’ll never know, but at least a basketball junkie can speculate.
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