Sometimes the NBA Draft can seem so simple. This year, the simple choice for the 76ers appears to be Ben Simmons, who looks incrementally better than Brandon Ingram. Doesn’t matter that there were reports last month, since refuted, that Simmons wanted to play for the Lakers to sweeten his sneaker deal. Doesn’t matter that he appears to have no intention of working out for the Sixers before Thursday’s draft — though he did reportedly meet with the team last week — since it appears he has no intention of working out for anyone.
You use the No. 1 pick on him, and away you go.
Except drafts never are. Talent matters, sure, but there are far more layers to these things than meet the eye. Agents and inner circles and yes, sneaker guys putting their $.02 in. Behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. Paralysis-by-analysis on the part of the teams (and influence exerted by guys – OK, owners – who often don’t know a UCLA cut from a UCLA Golden Girl).
Which brings us to a fascinating tale about the 1996 NBA Draft selection process.
Around here, that draft is recalled as the year the Sixers used the first overall selection on Allen Iverson. And that seemed to work out rather well.
But the other Philadelphia story to come out of that draft involves a native son – Kobe Bryant – being drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets out of Lower Merion High School, then dealt immediately to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac.
The rest, of course, is NBA history.
Except history could have been different. Kobe could have (and maybe should have) been taken at No. 8 by the New Jersey Nets.
Hold up, cuz – the Nets? The team that has been largely irrelevant since gifting Dr. J to the Sixers in 1976? The team that has tried to escape the shadow of the Knicks by moving closer to MSG? The team, now based in Brooklyn, that is owned by a (possibly shady) Russian businessman?
The Nets are perhaps best summed up by a quote from Derrick Coleman, one of their would-be stars from a bygone era: “Whoop-di-damn-do.” (And any discussion of Coleman’s career, which included some time in Philadelphia, is best left for another time.)
Everything could have been different if they had taken Kobe in ‘96. And they wanted to do so, only to be talked out of it at the last minute.
John Calipari and John Nash were heading into their first season as the Nets’ coach and general manager, respectively, at that point. Calipari, now the coach at the University of Kentucky, declined comment for this story through a university spokesman.
Nash talked. Boy, did he talk.
That draft, he said, was “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
Nash, now 69, has deep ties to the game, and to Philadelphia. Before landing the GM gig in New Jersey, the Drexel Hill native (and St. Joe’s grad) had filled the same position in Washington, and prior to that, the Sixers. He had also served as the Sixers’ assistant general manager (notably during the 1982-83 title run), and as executive secretary of the Big Five.
Nash knew Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad. He had seen Kobe play at Lower Merion, and the Nets had worked him out no fewer than three times in the run-up to the ’96 draft. Nash also recalled calling then-Sixers coach John Lucas the previous summer to ask how Jerry Stackhouse was faring in workouts at Sporting Club at the Bellevue.
“He’s the second-best two-guard in our gym,” Lucas told Nash.
Nash wracked his brain. He was still with Washington at the time, and knew that some of the Philly guys on his team, like LaSalle products Tim Legler and Doug Overton, worked out at Sporting Club. He didn’t figure Lucas was referring to them, however. So he asked him who was better.
“Kobe kicks his butt every day,” Lucas said.
Stackhouse called this story “straight lies” in Jonathan Abrams’ new book Boys Among Men: How the Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. And while Nash did not see for himself, others told him it was true: Kobe, then heading into his senior year of high school, was the better player. (Overton did not respond to a text message about this topic.)
So Nash wanted to take Kobe, and told Joe Bryant and his wife Pam as much when he and Calipari sat down with them for dinner the night before the draft. It was at that point, Nash recalled, that Joe Bryant predicted that his son would be a starter his first season and an All-Star his second. Nash held his tongue but thought that overly optimistic. Both predictions turned out to be true, however.
On draft day – June 26, 1996 – Nash and Calipari had lunch with Joe Taub, the Nets’ principal owner. Again they said they were going to take Kobe. Taub was leaning more toward Syracuse forward John Wallace, believing that by the time a high school kid like Kobe reached his potential, he would be at the end of his rookie contract and eager to move on from the Nets.
“The Nets had a very strong inferiority complex,” Nash said. “They really suffered from being in the shadow of the New York Knicks, in that marketplace. They always worried about what was going to go wrong, instead of what was going to go right.”
There nonetheless seemed to a consensus by the time lunch was over: Kobe was their guy. Then Nash and Calipari headed back to their offices, and things got interesting. Nash received a phone call from Kobe’s agent, Arn Tellem, and Calipari fielded one from Bryant.
Tellem, who according to Nash had been “excited” about his client going to the Nets until then, told the GM Kobe wanted to get away from Philadelphia, and away from his parents. Kobe told Calipari much the same thing.
(Tellem is now vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment – owner of the Detroit Pistons – and did not respond to an interview request sent to a team publicist. But when Bryant was asked in 2002 about the run-up to the ’96 draft, he told the Associated Press, “Arn Tellem had something to do with that. I don’t know how much leverage a 17-year old kid can have. At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere — Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn’t matter.”)
In the meantime another agent, David Falk, also called Calipari and urged him to take one of his clients, Villanova guard Kerry Kittles. Kittles, Falk told him, was the safe choice.
Nash had no idea what was going on, but did recall that Lakers general manager Jerry West had offered Divac for the No. 8 pick in the weeks leading up to the draft. Nash had declined, but wondered if a team picking behind the Nets had accepted such a deal.
So he called Charlotte GM Bob Bass, and asked if he had something going with the Lakers. Bass didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.
“And when he wouldn’t tell me,” Nash said, “I knew he had a deal.”
He also had a coach who was wavering on Kobe. And it was Calipari’s call, too; as executive vice president of basketball operations, he out-ranked Nash.
At dinner time on draft day, the two met with the entire ownership group. And according to Nash, that’s when Calipari announced that if Kittles was on the board, the Nets were going to take him. If he wasn’t, they would grab Kobe.
“He did a reversal, and I was deflated because I knew who the first seven picks were,” Nash said. “It was disappointing, to say the least.”
Not that Kittles wasn’t a good player. He averaged 14 points in eight seasons. It’s just that he wasn’t Kobe – “one of the top 10 players of all time,” in Nash’s opinion. Not to mention a guy who could have changed the course of Nets history, had they taken him.
As it was, Calipari was fired 20 games into the 1998-99 season. Nash remained in New Jersey through 2001, and later spent three years as Portland’s GM. He last worked in basketball as the Sixers’ pro scout from 2008-11, and now spends his days working with “slow thoroughbred racehorses,” as he said with a laugh.
He noted that he never had a chance to discuss that draft with Bryant over the course of his 20-year career, which culminated this past spring.
But the memory is as fresh as the lesson: At draft time, stuff happens.
And it’s important to keep that in mind now.