The Biggest Miss Ever: The Teams That Passed On Drafting Kobe Bryant

by August 14, 2020
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The 1996 NBA Draft turned out to be historic, an undeniable top-three class in League history. Multiple champions and MVPs and now-mythical ballplayers got their start on June 26, 1996.

But going into that night, GMs and coaches had already determined that there were a half-dozen can’t-miss players. Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen and Antoine Walker were the “Super Six of ’96,” the dudes that were locks to be selected first. And that’s how it played out.

Another half-dozen teams would make their picks, all missing out on a chance to draft the man who would immortalize the #8 and the #24.

So cheers to the Dirty Dozen and Unlucky #13 for making the mistake of a generation.

In honor of UNDEFEATED’s new Kobe 5 pack, we’re running down every player selected before Kobe and every franchise that got it wrong by not taking him.

  1.     Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Italy was isolation. For most of his time over there, Kobe was alone, obsessing over basketball, dreaming and imagining the places that the game could take him. Then when he and his family got back to the States, they settled in Philadelphia. Lower Merion High School was the new headquarters for young Kobe to finally show the work he had put in during all those years.

It was like a comic book superhero had made his grand entrance.

Boom!

Pow!

Wham!

It wasn’t a bird or a plane—it was Kobe flying over every high school kid that dared to guard him. #33 was an unstoppable force, an immovable object that just wanted to see every school in Philly burn.

But the Sixers weren’t watching the story unfold. They selected Allen Iverson with the first pick in the ’96 draft.

Iverson and Bryant would have their battles. They’d each win and they’d each lose. Sometimes Kobe was the villain and sometimes he was the hero.

Until 2001, when Iverson earned League MVP and carried an offensively-challenged squad to the Finals. The roles were clear. Iverson was The Answer, the person that the entire country was rooting for. Kobe was the one standing in his way.

But there was no happy ending, no way the sun would shine on Iverson and Philly. Kobe made sure of that.

He sent his hometown team back home by doing everything on the floor and reminding them in between hounding defense, marvelous shotmaking and an evil competitiveness that their local kid wasn’t a kid anymore.

“It was always a war,” Iverson said in 2016. “You knew you had to come with your best. He brought everything out of me. He’s a fighter. With all the criticism that came his way throughout the years, he was able to overcome it all. That’s how he’s built. He loves proving people wrong.”

You hear that, Philly?

2. Marcus Camby, Toronto Raptors

Defense, rebounding and leadership were the qualities that made Marcus Camby a sure thing coming out of the University of Massachusetts. He was forever steady on the backline, plus he brought athleticism to the offensive end, as well as a very famous shooting form that was actually good money for the entirety of his 17 years in the League. 

But damn, did Kobe love playing against him. They played against each other 37 times and Camby came up on the wrong side of those matchups 24 times. Bean was out there giving him a light dose of 25 points every time they linked up. Then there were the times he gave Camby and his teams the gold-member level scoring treatment. Those were all-inclusive experiences that saw 51 points and 42 points (twice) get put on the Nuggets. 

And that career average of 25 points per game against Camby got upped to 33 a night when they met in the 2008 playoffs. Bean put that Nuggets team out of their misery swiftly. In the four-game sweep he put up 32 points, then 49 points, then a calm 22 and ended them with an efficient 31.

The defense that Camby got drafted for wasn’t ever enough vs #8 or #24. 

But back to the Raptors real, real quick. 

January 22, 2006. 

81 reasons to regret passing on him in ’96. 

3. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vancouver Grizzlies

The shots seemed to cascade down from the rafters when Kobe found the zone. It used to look like they were falling and descending from basketball heaven, like Kobe was above the floor, higher than the defense—hooping from the sky. He would raise up and no matter what the defense did, the shots would splash through the net. And it would happen relentlessly, until the final buzzer mercifully sounded. 

It wasn’t just that there were a lot of shots. It’s that, truthfully, they were often bad shots against good defense that somehow always went in. 

Ask Shareef Abdur-Rahim about January 19, 2006. 

The third pick in the ‘96 draft had moved on from Vancouver to Sacramento by that point. His Kings team caught up with Kobe just three nights before he hit 81. He was already in the zone. 

Kobe racked up 51 points, getting the step on every single member of the Sac-Town defense. He did his damage from wherever he wanted to on the floor but most of his buckets came in the midrange, taking bad shots that became good shots because they went in. Clinically speaking, it was a first-class education in midrange footwork out of the triple-threat. Prof. Bryant was nice enough to give the Kings a free course. 

The Lakers lost in overtime that night. But a decade into their careers, Bryant showed Adbur-Rahim what the zone truly looked like. 

4. Stephon Marbury, Milwaukee Bucks

Stephon Marbury deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s how nasty he was. From Lincoln High School in Coney Island to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to the NBA to China, the only thing that ever changed was the jersey. The rest stayed the same. The hunger he played with, the fight he showed, the brilliance he brought to the hardwood, it all deserves to be rewarded with a spot in Springfield. 

That’s why the fourth pick’s words about Kobe, from a 2007 interview, carry so much weight. This isn’t Steph speaking about the finished product, the man with five chips and two Olympic Golds and over 30,000 career points. This is the single-minded, uncompromising, still-searching-for-the-next-rings Kobe. So listen up. Because real ballplayers know real ballplayers. 

“The way he goes at basketball and his preparation and dedication is something that’s unique. Kids think that he’s Kobe Bryant, he’s just as good as he is because of him just knowing how to play. They don’t know before the product touches the store, there’s a lot of things that has to go into that. People, when they look at him play, it’s like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ Nah, you can’t do that. He’s the only person on this Earth that can do what he’s doing on a basketball court. He defends and plays offense. Who does that? He guards, he defends, he stops people. And then do that on the offensive end? Seeing him that night is like, ‘Damn, I can’t score and he about to bust my ass.’ That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

5. Ray Allen, Minnesota Timberwolves 

Enter the mind of a predatory animal on the hunt for food. Picture the hours that go by stalking and waiting for the right moment to make the right move to execute the right strike. Imagine all the time that is spent trying to survive and advance, all the skills sharpened by those experiences. 

But there’s something else out there in the wild. Another predator that’s just as big, just as cunning and even more cold-blooded. 

No matter what you do, that animal is marking you as its prey, just like you’ve marked others as your own prey. 

You know this. You know it’s coming. You know it wants blood. 

Ray Allen knew that Kobe had him marked. He learned about that when they met while traveling together to the Rookie Combine in Chicago. Kobe had Allen in his sights, studying him during his career at UConn, clocking the footwork and the instantly-squared-to-the-rim shoulders that Ray used on his jumpshot. Allen even knew how Kobe always felt disrespected about getting selected well after he did in the draft. 

They had their fights in between Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Seattle. All those scraps were meant to lead up to the battles in 2008 and 2010. 

When two alphas meet, it becomes a war of the mind. The bodyblows will land, but the spirit will stand. 

Allen won in ’08, catapulting three-pointer after three-pointer, setting what was then a Finals record for most threes. 

Kobe didn’t stop, though. 

He came back in ’10 and he got revenge for the draft, for all the times that Allen outscored him and beat him, for both the Bucks and Timberwolves thinking that Allen was a better player. 

The hunt was done. 

6. Antoine Walker, Boston Celtics

The Celtics were ready to draft Kobe. ML Carr, who was the director of basketball operations and the coach in 1996, and Red Auerbach, who needs no introduction, had him come to Boston for a workout before the big night on June 26, 1996. It’s no surprise that he bodied the workout. His shot was flowing and his interview was an early indication of the basketball genius he would morph into. 

They wanted to select him with the sixth pick. They saw all of it. They could see his skill level and his intellect and they could see his willingness to learn from older players and teach younger ones. They saw it from the drills that Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson put him through and they saw it from all the tapes they watched of him destroying high schoolers. 

But they didn’t take him. 

Their fear outweighed their interest. 

The Celtics were a bad team in 1996, far from all their glory of the previous three decades. They wanted to pick up a prospect that was pro-ready, somebody they could trust to adjust to the League.

They went with Antoine Walker, who ended up having a good career, averaging over 20 points per game during his time with the Cs. 

Carr and Johnson and Auerbach made the wrong decision, though. 

Bean came back and burned them in 2010 when he led the Lakers to the chip. 

They could’ve had him join the history that includes Russell, Bird and the countless other Hall of Famers that have worn the green. But they got scared. 

7. Lorenzen Wright, Los Angeles Clippers

Lorenzen Wright was tragically murdered in 2010 after a 13-year NBA career in which he averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds per game. 

He and Kobe matched up a handful of times in the League, and like everybody else, he didn’t have the answer. Kobe dropped 45 on his teams a couple of times, as well as multiple games of 25-plus. 

Out of respect for Lorenzen, let’s stick to the franchise that had spent decades in the basement—the Clippers. 

Bill Fitch, the Hall of Famer, was their coach and Elgin Baylor, the Hall of Famer, was their general manager. Even with all that brainpower and basketball history in between them, they didn’t pick up on Kobe’s potential. All they had to do was watch him play.

Here’s what Kobe did to the Clippers in 69 career matchups: 

22.4 points per game

5.1 rebounds per game

4.6 assists per game

1.6 steals per game

47-22 record

He kept the Clippers down, repeatedly making them look like the little brothers. Their “home” games belonged to him. There were more of his jerseys at Clippers home games than there were hot dogs, popcorns and sodas. He was the guest that never left, the neighbor who served as the ultimate reminder of the biggest miss that Baylor and Fitch ever had. 

8. Kerry Kittles, New Jersey Nets

It played out like a soap opera. The New Jersey Nets had made it known; they were ready to draft Kobe. John Calipari had just been named coach and general manager of the Nets and he didn’t hide any of his interest in the youngster. He had multiple private workouts in front of Calipari and his staff, with all of them playing out the same way—he was busting up every full-time Net they brought in to guard him. 

The love was immediate. Calipari and the front office recognized the greatness they were watching and they wanted to capture it in the draft and then set it free on the court.  

That love, unfortunately, wasn’t mutual. 

Bryant didn’t want to play in New Jersey and his agent, Arn Tellem, was going to make sure it didn’t happen. Drama followed from the moment that information became known. Tellem was threatening the Nets, saying that if they picked him, he’d ghost and go back to Italy. Arrivederci, idioti. Just like Calipari, Tellem knew what time it was. This was a special, special talent. 

Rumors flew for weeks. He said this and then he said that. But wait, then they said something else.

Oh, the storylines! Oh, the narratives! Oh, the lies! Oh, the truths?

The only people that know whether or not Kobe would’ve actually gone to the Boot aren’t giving up the informazione. Maybe he wouldn’t have. Maybe his dynasty would’ve been in East Rutherford, New Jersey, rather than in Los Angeles, California. Maybe he and Jason Kidd would have gotten to link up. 

Tellem’s plan worked. Calipari went with Kerry Kittles, a talented shooting guard out of Villanova. He had a nice eight-year career, calmly and efficiently averaging 14 points a game.  

The ghost came back to torment New Jersey in 2002. Swiftly, with no sympathy, Kob and the Show swept Kittles and the Nets in the Finals. It wasn’t even close. He was still #8, reigning down on those helpless defenders with towering poster dunks and the flashiest windmills. 

The love that never was hurts the deepest. 

9. Samaki Walker, Dallas Mavericks

Samaki Walker wound up on the Lakers for their 2002 championship season against the Nets. His head-to-head with Kobe isn’t on the same level (22.5 ppg vs 5.9 ppg) so let’s rewind to December 20, 2005 to show the Dallas Mavericks a souvenir they received for passing on Kobe in favor of Walker. 

It was a 75-degree day in Los Angeles. “Run It!” by Chris Brown was blasting on the radio every other moment. Kids were flocking to movie theaters to catch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Gold Digger” was still getting airtime and so was “Disco Inferno.”

Kobe was scorching the League then too. From November 2 to December 19, he was out there getting 30 and 40-balls with consistency. Tearing people up with so much ferocity that it was no way he couldn’t be considered the best ballplayer on the planet. 

Three-pointers, midrange, dunks, lays were dropping with such such style and grace that double-teams and triple-teams couldn’t stop him. This was Prime Kobe

The Mavericks were in town and they were good that season, carrying an 18-6 record in the matchup. 

They weren’t good enough, though. 

Kobe scored 62 points in three quarters. He played 32 minutes, took 31 shots and outscored the visitors by himself. They wrapped up the third with a total of 61 points. 

It was all island-work. Nobody else around, just Kobe, the triple-threat position and pain. The water was too deep for any Maverick that came to Kobe Island. None of them could swim safely. He sunk ‘em all and then called it a night, allowing them to only lose by 22.  

Samaki Walker was long gone by then. Kobe wasn’t. 

Nobody was talking about those movies or songs on December 21. They were just talking about Kobe. 


10. Erick Dampier, Indiana Pacers

The knock on Kobe coming out of high school was about strength, both mentally and physically. The doubters all sang in unison; Is he strong enough to guard Michael and Reggie and Payton and Mitch and all the other PGs and SGs that will take him to the block? Then the chorus of those songs went like; Can he handle an 82-game season? He’s never played that many games before.

When he hardcore-failed against Utah in the 1997 playoffs, with those four straight airballs, that song of doubt rocked the nation. 

We told you, we told you.  

The Pacers didn’t want any part of the high school kid during the draft. They had their own shooting guard. He was the best three-pointer shooter ever at that point, an ironclad lock for the Hall of Fame. They were an old-school organization with a roster full of veterans. Didn’t matter how much talent the kid had, they weren’t about to draft somebody that had just gone to prom. 

So they went with Erick Dampier, a rock solid center that played three seasons at Mississippi State. 

And then they watched Kobe shoot the Lakers out of the 1997 playoffs. 

And then against the Pacers in Game 4 of the 2000 Finals, after Shaquille O’Neal fouled out, they watched Kobe shoot the Lakers into a huge road win. 

There were just over two minutes remaining in overtime. Kobe shook the shit outta Reggie Miller near the left side of the circle. A left-to-right cross that he threw between his legs sent Miller wobbling backwards. One bucket. A stare-down pull-up over Mark Jackson followed about 30 seconds later. Two buckets. Then when Brian Shaw went streaking from left to right down the lane and missed an awkward hook shot, Kobe sprang up off the floor and tipped in the miss with his right hand. Three buckets. Gametime. 

They weren’t singing that song of doubt anymore. It would be just a couple of games after that Kobe would win his first NBA championship. 

11. Todd Fuller, Golden State Warriors

To be real, it didn’t work out for Todd Fuller in the NBA. Things happen that way sometimes. He was nice at NC State and then his NBA career only lasted five seasons. Most of those years were spent on the bench. He might’ve been lacking in basketball skill or maybe he wasn’t able to mentally comprehend and then physically adjust to the way ball is played in the League.

Kobe never let the Warriors forget being so close to getting him and choosing Todd damn Fuller instead. He went 51-16 against them in his 20 seasons. He gave them a 50-piece combo in 2000 and treated them to nine different 40-point performances and 17 other outings with at least 30 points. He had even had a game in their building where he dished out 14 assists. Yeah, that guy making that many passes.

He never had to see them in the postseason and he only ever played against Fuller a combined 12 times. Ain’t hard to tell how those games went.

12. Vitaly Potapenko, Cleveland Cavaliers

On the night that Kobe set the record for the most three-pointers made in a game (it’s since been broken by Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry), he connected from distance 12 times and had three huge dunks. His primary defender was Desmond Mason but the Seattle SuperSonics threw everybody at him. Kenny Anderson tried. Rashard Lewis did, too. Vladimir Radmanovic also contested a few shots.

Bean was firing in a few different ways. Shaq got double-teamed a couple of times and hit him for some off-the-catch shots. He had some fall after he set up his own dribbles. He, of course, shot a bunch of them out of the triple-threat.

It was 2003, though. Dudes weren’t shooting three-pointers at will yet. The game still operated inside-out. Shaq got his post touches and Kobe ran the offense from the wing. So launching 18 missiles was exceptionally rare, even for the best guard in the League.

Because the crowd wasn’t used to that type of volume shooting, they were hanging on every attempt, sonically following the trajectory of every shot.

Their collective voice would rise in pitch each time he put one up and then it would crash down in unison when they dropped.

He had ten of them already in the books with 2:33 left in the third. He was on the right wing, Mason standing in front of him. He took a beat to stay there, without dribbling, holding the pumpkin in his right hand. Mason took a huge swipe at the ball, leading Kobe to rip through a right-to-left screen. He took one left-handed dribble and hopped into a shot off two feet, met with a right-handed contest from one of the Sonics’ big men.

With his follow-through up for an extra moment, Kobe laced a triple in the eye of Vitaly Potapenko, the man selected right before him in the 1996 Draft.

Life comes at you fast, Vitaly. There’s your defining moment in NBA history.

13. Charlotte Hornets

They had him. They really, really, really had him. They could’ve had Kobe Bryant playing for the team that Michael Jordan would one day own. That could’ve been real life.

Jerry West, who was running the purple and gold in ‘96, had a plan to make sure that the Hornets’ draft pick would become the Lakers’ rookie.

“Kobe Bryant, through his agent, they were trying to direct him here to us,” West said shortly after Kobe passed. “So Kobe wanted to come back again and workout for us. So Arn called me and said, ‘He’s in town, he wants to workout.’ I brought Michael Cooper in, one of the great defenders we’ve had in our League. Well, after 10 minutes, I said, ‘Stop this.’ He was embarrassing Michael.”

West didn’t stop working until he orchestrated a trade that sent Vlade Divac to Charlotte. It became official on July 11 of that year.

Then the Logo used that cap space to sign the Diesel, which in turn established the best guard/big tandem to ever play basketball.

For their part, the Hornets got Divac and some playoff appearances in the years that followed. And they also get to go down in history as unlucky #13, the last team that lost out on Kobe Bean Bryant.

Max Resetar is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Photos via Getty.

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