John Calipari was entering his first season as head coach of the New Jersey Nets back in 1996 and was getting ready for his first NBA Draft as head coach. The Nets had the 8th overall pick in the draft. The likely draftee for the Nets? The late, great Kobe Bryant.
As we now know, that did not come to fruition. Instead, the Nets took Kerry Kittles out of Villanova instead of the 17 year-old from Lower Merion High School. Bryant fell five spots to the No. 13 overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets but was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night. The rest is history.
On Monday night, Coach Cal shared some of his thoughts on the passing of Kobe and brought up the story from the 1996 draft:
“I had the eighth pick in the draft, and everyone thought I was nuts. A 17 year old kid, a high school kid who’s just now getting to the NBA? It shows you don’t know what you’re doing. But anyway, through all those times, all the years we came in contact. One time he said, ‘You know if you drafted me, you would still be in the NBA.’ He said that too. Just a great, great guy.”
Apparently, Calipari was set on selecting Kobe with the eighth overall pick, but Bryant and his agent told Calipari and the Nets that Bryant would not suit up for New Jersey if drafted by them.
What was Kobe going to do instead? Go play professionally over in Italy, which is where Kobe lived for a portion of his childhood due to father, Joe Bryant, playing overseas professionally.
In an ESPN article written by Ian O’Connor in 2011, Calipari was supposedly ‘faked out’ by Bryant and his agent:
“Kobe wasn’t going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go,” Nash said. “But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference.”
Instead, Calipari drafted Kittles, who averaged a solid 14.8 PPG during Cal’s tenure with the Nets. Still, he was no Kobe Bryant. Kobe was already a two-time NBA All-Star by the time Calipari lost his job with the Nets and was already averaging 22.5 PPG. The Lakers would win their first title in the 1999-2000 season and then go for a three-peat.
Calipari said that he prayed for Bryant and his family on his call-in show Monday night. “Because, what are you going to say? People know all he did on the court, things he did off the court, the impact he had out west, the impact he had in Philly, the impact he had on his family. It was telling that he was taking his daughter to an AAU game that he was the coach.”
In light of the recent tragedy involving Kobe and his daughter, Gianna, this is a pretty funny story in hindsight that we can all look back on and laugh at.
Calipari then shared some thoughts on Twitter about Kobe and Gianna:
No words work on a day like today; only a prayer:— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) January 26, 2020
Lord, we all mourn the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the others who lost their lives today. May you grant eternal rest to them, O Lord; and let your light perpetually shine upon them. Amen.