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Mike Sielski: A legend's greatest coup: How the late Jerry West made Kobe Bryant a Laker

Mike Sielski, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

Jerry West, the legendary Los Angeles Lakers player, coach, and executive, died Wednesday at 86 . Among his many career accomplishments, West was instrumental in masterminding and executing the Lakers’ plan — before, during, and after the 1996 NBA draft — to acquire a prospect out of Lower Merion High School named Kobe Bryant.

The following is an excerpt from the 2022 book “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” by Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski.

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The two men who, more than anyone else, conspired to orchestrate Kobe Bryant’s relocation from Wynnewood to the West Coast had their friendship blossom out of the strangest of places: a “Mommy and Me” class. Arn Tellem and Jerry West had been contemporaries and colleagues in the NBA, West as the Lakers’ general manager, Tellem as a powerful player agent. But it wasn’t until their wives gave birth to sons in the late 1980s — Karen West to Jonnie West, Nancy Tellem to Matty Tellem — and bonded as their toddlers played with finger paint and building blocks that West and Tellem themselves turned into more than just competitors on opposite sides of a negotiating table. Their families would vacation together at The Greenbrier, the luxury resort in West Virginia, near West’s childhood home. Jonnie and Matty became best friends. The trust that Tellem and West had in each other would prove the key factor in the lengthy and risky gambit that they pulled off to have Kobe land in Los Angeles, to initiate the regeneration of the Lakers’ dynasty.

Kobe entered the 1996 draft as a mystery. He had hired Joe Carbone to be his full-time personal trainer, having told Carbone in March that he would enter the draft, and Joe Bryant asked his friend Tony DiLeo — a fellow La Salle alumnus, a former professional player in Europe, and the Sixers’ director of scouting — to tutor Kobe for his pre-draft workouts. For an hour or so each day in The Fieldhouse at St. Joseph’s, DiLeo had Kobe carry out a drill that required him to shoot 300 shots: shots off the dribble, shots on the move, shots from behind the three-point line. If Kobe missed three straight shots from any spot, he’d have to begin the drill again. “That’s when I saw this inner drive he had, this drive to be great,” DiLeo recalled. “He would miss and get frustrated and want to do it again. He was relentless.”

But what did teams around the league really think of Kobe and his potential? Tellem wasn’t sure. Rob Babcock, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ player-personnel director, compared Kobe unfavorably to Kevin Garnett: “Kevin’s ability as a 6-11 player was so overwhelming, it came through immediately. He’s a very special player. You watch Kobe Bryant, and you don’t see that. His game doesn’t say, ‘I’m a very special talent.’ ” John Outlaw, the Denver Nuggets’ director of college scouting, had said flatly: “I don’t think he’s ready.” The Sixers, having gone 18-64 in 1995-96 and won the draft lottery, held the No. 1 overall pick, but most of the other early-first-round picks belonged to small-market franchises, and neither Kobe nor his sponsor Adidas would maximize one’s investment in the other if Kobe ended up in Vancouver, Indianapolis, or Cleveland. “The Lakers were the team I wanted to play for,” Kobe said, but the Lakers were 24th in the draft order. If they wanted Kobe as much as he wanted them, they’d have to find a way to acquire a higher pick.

So Tellem devised a way to use the uncertainty around Kobe to their advantage. “We had to recognize,” he recalled, “that we might have a unique opportunity.” Joe Bryant insisted to Tellem that Kobe was among the best players in the draft. To allow him to get a better sense of where Kobe might fall in the pecking order of prospects, Tellem arranged workouts with teams near the top of the first round … but not all of them. By having Kobe refuse to work out for certain teams, by denying them the opportunity to assess Kobe in person, Tellem could influence the process, cooling those teams on the idea of drafting Kobe. The strategy probably wouldn’t have worked in the modern NBA, when general managers were more likely to draft the best available player, regardless of his agent’s behind-the-scenes machinations. But this wasn’t the modern NBA. This was 1996. Offense was taken at the idea that Tellem, at his young client’s behest, could so manipulate the process. Who did this kid think he was?

Kobe worked out for just a few teams. Then Tellem called in a favor with his friend, setting up a private session for Kobe with West.

“I wanted to get Jerry’s opinion,” Tellem said. “I asked him: ‘I want to do this confidentially. I need to know what you think.’ ”

What followed were two workouts — at the Inglewood YMCA, “on a side street somewhere,” Kobe recalled — that convinced West that Kobe would be the NBA’s next Greatest Player. In the first, Kobe so dominated recently retired Lakers guard Michael Cooper — 40 years old at the time, still in good shape, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders during his career — that West stopped the workout after 15 minutes. “I thought that Kobe was possibly better than the players we had on the team at the time,” he wrote in his autobiography, West by West. “Never in my life have I seen a workout like that. When I said enough, I meant it.” What struck Cooper was how physically strong Kobe was, especially in the low post, an indication of how much Kobe’s training with Carbone had helped. In the second, in front of West and Lakers coach Del Harris, Kobe manhandled Dontae Jones, a 6-foot-8 small forward who, as a senior, had led Mississippi State to the Final Four just in March. I’m beating up on a regional MVP in the NCAA Tournament, he thought. If I had gone to college, I would have busted out. I would have killed.

Back at his hotel, Kobe called Tellem.

“How’d you do?” Tellem asked, his anxiousness apparent to Kobe. “How’d you do?”

“I did great. It went well.”

“All right. Really? Really? I love you, man. I love you.”

“Hey, Arn, take a chill pill.”

The Lakers had won just one postseason series in the five years since they had advanced to the 1991 NBA Finals, where they had lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in five games. West told Tellem, “I’m about to shake up this team this summer. I’d like to have Kobe and build around him and this other player I’m targeting.” The “other player” was Shaquille O’Neal, who was entering free agency after four years with the Orlando Magic. So West eventually put together the makings of a deal with the Charlotte Hornets, who had the No. 13 pick: If none of the first 12 teams had selected Kobe, the Hornets would take him, then trade him to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac. It was on Tellem, Adidas power player Sonny Vaccaro, and the Bryants to make sure that Kobe was still available when lucky No. 13 came around.

‘L.A., here I come’

An array of thick, dark curtains along the arena floor at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., created a green room, where, clad in boxy, too-big suits, the players sat with their families and agents at tables near a buffet. No one ate. Too many nerves. Lower Merion coaches Gregg Downer and Mike Egan were in the stands, looking down at NBA commissioner David Stern each time he revealed a pick. Kobe could hear Stern through the curtains, but he could see him only on a nearby television. Joe and Pam Bryant squirmed. Each squeezed one of Kobe’s hands.

 

Iverson to the Sixers …

Marcus Camby to the Toronto Raptors …

Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the Vancouver Grizzlies …

If I’m the fourth pick, or if I go to New Jersey or Sacramento or wherever, it does not matter. I’m the truth.

Antoine Walker to the Boston Celtics at No. 6 …

Lorenzen Wright to the Clippers at No. 7…

Kerry Kittles to the Nets …

L.A., here I come …

Todd Fuller to the Golden State Warriors at No. 11 …

Vitaly Potapenko to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 12 …

Kobe, don’t trip. Do not trip.

When they heard Stern announce that the Hornets had selected Kobe, Downer and Egan were pleased. Charlotte was a short flight or a manageable drive away; they could road-trip to some of Kobe’s games. It took Joe 20 minutes to break away from the post-pick interviews and afterglow and find them.

“Kobe,” he told them, “is going to be a Laker.”

Pressure over a prima donna

And then, it appeared he wouldn’t be. Divac said that, rather than go to the Hornets, he would retire. Bob Bass, Charlotte’s general manager, called West to say that he was backing out of the trade. “Bob, we have a deal, goddamn it,” West told him. “Vlade is not going to retire. Trust me.” Tellem called Bass and unleashed a fusillade of fury that his assistant, Elissa Fisher Grabow, would remember for years thereafter: screaming, stomping his feet, his neck veins popping, his mouth throwing spittle, “so much physical chaos,” Grabow said, to compel Bass to complete the trade. Which, when Divac’s wife persuaded him not to retire, the teams did.

The fallout for Kobe and Tellem was swift and fierce. One was a 17-year-old prima donna dictating terms to the entire NBA; the other, the enabler behind a summer-long scheme to force his client to a favorable destination. Jerry Reynolds, the player-personnel director for the Sacramento Kings, said that “it’s depressing that any player and his representation, who have their choice of entering or electing not to enter the draft, turn around and don’t follow the rules of the draft.” Timothy Dwyer of the Inquirer wrote that Kobe “didn’t help himself or his image. He turned off a lot of sneaker-buying fans with his adolescent power play.” The stress of acquiring Kobe and signing O’Neal in mid-July threw West into so deep a state of exhaustion and depression that he spent several days in the hospital. Kobe, though, had gotten what he wanted, and he felt neither guilty about the means to his end nor fatigued after the process.

“Now I’m a Laker,” he said later that summer. “I was kind of surprised and shocked at first. Now, it’s just like, I want to win a championship. I’m not stepping in there saying, ‘I want to have a nice rookie season, and if we get a championship, fine. If we get to the Western Conference finals, fine.’ It’s not like that. I want to get a championship. I want to get there now. It’s going to be like that every, every year. If I win a championship next year, the next year I’m going to come back saying, ‘Look, man, I want to get a championship again. Shaq, come on, man. Let’s go. Let’s get another one. Michael got four. Let’s get five then. Let’s get five.’ That’s how it’s going to be from this point on.”


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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