To this day, the Hornets are still kicking themselves

If there is one NBA team that wishes they had a “wiser” front office back during the 1996 NBA Draft, it would have to be the Charlotte Hornets. As people may know, the Hornets were the first team to draft the young phenom known as Kobe Bryant out of Lower Merion and immediately traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. According to most reports, the trade was planned from the beginning.

According to Arn Tellem, Bryant’s agent, spoke about the events which took place and Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer did a great job of summarizing it below:

Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, and then-Lakers general manager Jerry West manipulated that draft masterfully. West wanted Bryant and he also wanted to create enough space under the salary cap to sign center Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent. He ended up with both, reinvigorating the Lakers.

The Hornets were more or less pawns in all this. Tellem wouldn’t let some lottery teams -– including the New Jersey Nets and the Hornets -– work out Bryant, a high school player from suburban Philadelphia. About a week before the draft Bass asked me what I was hearing about all this. He suspected the same thing I did, that Tellem was trying to direct Bryant to a team outside the top picks.

The morning of that draft we got a tip at the Observer that the Hornets were discussing a trade to acquire a center. Eventually, working with Scott Howard-Cooper, then of the Los Angeles Times, we figured out this was the deal: If Bryant lasted to the Hornets’ 13th pick, they would select him and deal him to the Lakers for Divac’s pre-existing contract. That gave West both Bryant and the cap space to pursue O’Neal.

Now according to Kobe Bryant, that never happened. He still believes that the organization really never wanted him. According to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, Kobe Bryant stated:

“Charlotte never wanted me,” Bryant said after scoring 20 points on 5-of-20 shooting during a 108-98 loss on Monday. “[Hornets coach Dave] Cowens told me he didn’t want me. It wasn’t a question of me even playing here. They had a couple of guards already, a couple small forwards already. So it wasn’t like I would be off the bench much. ”

“I mean, I had grown up watching basketball,” Bryant said. “I knew who Dave Cowens was and [was] pretty excited [to play for him]. Then I was like, ‘Oh, all right.’ I quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.”

“Cowens told me, ‘We don’t really need you here,'” Bryant said.

If Kobe is lying or doesn’t remember, the amount of money we would pay to go back and be a fly on the wall during the 96′ draft would be stupendous. Regardless of the story, the Hornets really shot themselves in the foot letting Kobe go and the real winner of the whole situation was the Lakers. As Kobe’s career dwindles down, it will be interesting to see if more draft/career stories like this surface.