Kobe Bryant will forever be synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers. You can’t talk about one without mentioning the other. When the Lakers traded for an 18-year-old Bryant in 1996, it turned out to be arguably the greatest day in franchise history. That same 18-year-old went on to lead the Lakers to five NBA titles in 20 seasons.
But Bryant’s entire career and legacy could look much different today had the Lakers’ biggest rival drafted Bryant instead on that fateful day in 1996. That’s right, Bryant was nearly drafted by the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers stole Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA draft
Entering the 1996 NBA draft, Kobe Bryant was the most polarizing prospect in the class. He was a silky smooth offensive talent with all the potential in the world to become a star, but he was only 18 years old at the time. Bryant decided to forego a college career and jump straight to the NBA out of high school, which worried many general managers around the league.
Despite his immense talent and potential, Bryant slipped to the 13th overall pick in the draft. He threw on a Charlotte Hornets hat to walk on stage and shake hands with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, but he wouldn’t end up playing a single game for the Hornets. In fact, he didn’t even last a few minutes on that team that drafted him.
Immediately after the Hornets drafted Bryant, the Lakers swooped in and traded for the high school phenom. It turned out to be one of the most monumental trades in NBA history, but the Lakers almost never even got the chance to land the future Hall of Famer that night.
The Boston Celtics were enamored with Kobe Bryant
Leading up to the 1996 draft, multiple teams in the top 10 hosted Bryant for a workout to get a better look at the high schooler who was sweeping the nation. One of those teams happened to be the Boston Celtics, who held the No. 6 overall pick after trading up from No. 9.
M.L. Carr, the Celtics head coach at the time, remembers that workout fondly.
“I tell you, he put on a shooting exhibition the way he stroked the ball,” Carr told Baxter Holmes of ESPN. “It was unbelievable. We put him in a lot of catch-and-shoot situations. We put him in dribble across the middle, pull-up-and-shoot. We let him stroke a little bit from the 3-point line. But it was a lot of quick release, get-it-off-quick [shots] to see if he could do that, because we knew at the next level, he was going to have to get it quick against better defenses than in high school. But he did it in flying colors.”
“If you closed your eyes and thought a little bit, you might have thought you were watching Michael Jordan,” then-Celtics general manager Jan Volk told ESPN. “He did everything well — beyond well. He was exceptional in everything that he did. And then we commented, as I recall, on how reminiscent he was of Michael.
“I can’t think of any other way to describe his workout, other than he was exceptional.”
Bryant also impressed the Celtics during the pre-draft interview process. Carr called the team’s interview with Bryant “unbelievable.” “He was the best interview that I’ve ever been a part of,” Carr said.
Kobe Bryant almost ended up with the Lakers’ biggest rival
Kobe Bryant might’ve had the highest upside of any player in the 1996 draft, but the NBA was in agreement that the “Super Six of ’96” (Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Antoine Walker) were going to be the first prospects off the board.
And that’s exactly how it played out. Because the Celtics were able to trade up to the No. 6 overall pick, they were able to grab the last of the Super Six — Antoine Walker.
“We didn’t care which one of the six fell to us,” Rick Weitzman, the Celtics then-scouting director told ESPN. “We knew we would take one of them because we needed help right away and all six of those guys were prepared to help right away, whereas Kobe, we knew we’d have to wait. And you know how the NBA works — you don’t have a long leash.”
Walker went on to have a fine career with the Celtics, but he was no Kobe Bryant. If the Celtics stayed put at No. 9, it’s likely they would’ve taken a chance on Bryant, which would’ve changed the course of NBA history as we know it.