As a head coach of the New Jersey Nets back in 1996, current UK basketball coach John Calipari had the opportunity to draft NBA legend Kobe Bryant with the No. 8 pick in the draft.
In fact, after bringing him in for three separate meetings and workouts, the Nets were at one point seen as the likely destination for the Lower Merion High School standout leading up to draft night.
Instead, the organization decided to take Villanova star guard Kerry Kittles at No. 8 overall, allowing Bryant to slip five more spots to Charlotte, who drafted the 6-foot-6 guard at No. 13 and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
From there, the rest was history, at least on the surface level.
Back in the early 2000s, Calipari hopped on the “Best Damn Sports Show” on Fox Sports, where he talked publicly with Bryant about his decision to pass on him in the draft, an exchange that went viral once again in the aftermath of the NBA legend’s tragic passing on Sunday afternoon.
“Kobe, I don’t mean to call out anyone on our set named John Calipari, but I’m going to,” host Chris Rose said in the clip. “He was head coach of the New Jersey Nets when he had an opportunity to draft Kobe Bryant. Do you remember who he selected instead?”
“Of course I do,” Bryant responded. “Kerry Kittles.”
“Now how many times did I have you up in New Jersey [for pre-draft workouts and meetings]?” Calipari said.
“About three times.”
“Three times with your family,” Calipari said. “You know who I wanted to pick. I’d still be coaching , by the way, in the NBA, if I had you. Just so you know that.”
“Coach, stop lying,” NBA Hall-of-Fame guard Gary Payton joked to Calipari. “You knew you wanted Kerry Kittles! We know you’re an east coast dude. Just say you messed up, Coach. You messed up!”
On Monday evening, Calipari was asked about his relationship with Bryant and his thoughts on the passing of the NBA legend, and the Kentucky head coach brought up a similar pre-draft story.
Only this time, Calipari added that Bryant told him the next time around that he was certain he would still be coaching if he took him in the draft.
“I had the [eighth] pick in the draft, and everyone thought I was nuts,” Calipari said. ‘”A 17 year old kid, a high school kid who’s just now getting to the NBA? It shows you don’t know what you’re doing.” But anyway, through all those times, all the years we came in contact. One time he said, “You know if you drafted me, you would still be in the NBA.” He said that too. Just a great, great guy.”
While the story is certainly lighthearted on the surface, some other accounts of how the 1996 draft unfolded seem to indicate there were outside factors forcing Calipari and the Nets to pass on Bryant.
As pointed out by Derek Terry of The Cats Pause, it was reported in the book “Boys Among Men” by Jonathan Abrams that Calipari and Nets general manager John Nash were set on selecting Bryant with the eighth pick, but the high school standout and his agent Arn Tellem informed the franchise they would likely not play for the Nets if they drafted him.
“Kobe Bryant had phoned Calipari and reiterated that he did not want to play for the Nets, and if drafted by the organization, he would instead play professionally in Italy,” Abrams wrote, via Terry. “Calipari’s concern grew. He would already be taking a risk in drafting Bryant and going against the ownership group. But taking a high school player who did not even want to play for him? He could wind up a laughingstock before ever coaching an NBA game.”
In an ESPN article written by columnist Ian O’Connor, Nash said Calipari was “faked out” of selecting Bryant in 1996.
“John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the  draft,” Nash told ESPN. “And he got faked out.”
“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari said of his desire to select Bryant, and not Kittles. “But let me say this, the opportunity to coach Kerry Kittles I wouldn’t give up for anything. I love Kerry Kittles, and I said at the time he’ll be better than Kobe these first couple of years, but in five years Kobe’s going to be off the charts.”
According to the report, Calipari was “mesmerized” with his trio of workouts with Bryant and was set on taking him. But after hearing the high school standout could head overseas instead, he couldn’t talk himself into taking the risk.
Calipari worked out Bryant three times at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and three times came away mesmerized. “If you watched the workouts,” Calipari said, “you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he’s ridiculous.”
Or both. Nobody knew it at the time, but Bryant and his agent and a sneaker benefactor were about to fool Calipari in a staggering way.
The night before the draft, Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J. Kobe’s mother and father were thrilled that their son would be playing within commuting distance of their suburban Philly home.
Over lunch on draft day, Calipari and Nash told one of the Nets’ seven owners, Joe Taub, that Bryant would be a Net in eight hours. Taub preferred John Wallace, the Syracuse senior, and worried that a high school kid might ultimately leave for a bigger market and a better team in free agency.
Only Bryant wasn’t about to wait years for his liberation. He called Calipari after the coach’s lunch with Taub, and Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, called Nash. Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.
Sneaker maven Sonny Vaccaro would later admit he worked with his good friend, Tellem, to maneuver Bryant to a franchise that would maximize his marketing charms. But Nash thought the Nets should hold firm and call Bryant’s bluff.
“Kobe wasn’t going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go,” Nash said. “But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference.”
After taking Kittles instead, Calipari remained in New Jersey for three seasons from 1996-1999 before being fired on March 16, 1999 with a final coaching record of 72-112.
“It’s a humbling thing,” Calipari told ESPN, “when you walk in and … they say, ‘We don’t want you here. Just beat it. You’re out. You can’t do this job.'”
He then joined the Philadelphia 76ers as an assistant before taking the head coaching job at Memphis in 2000. He would then leave for Kentucky in 2009.
Despite the back-and-forth pre-draft process and the way each of their NBA careers unfolded, Calipari can’t appreciate Bryant enough for what he did for the game of basketball and who he was as a person.
“I didn’t even want to put anything out last night, I just put a prayer out for him,” Calipari said on his call-in radio show. “Because, what are you going to say? People know all he did on the court, things he did off the court, the impact he had out west, the impact he had in Philly, the impact he had on his family. It was telling that he was taking his daughter to an AAU game that he was the coach.”
No words work on a day like today; only a prayer:
Lord, we all mourn the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the others who lost their lives today. May you grant eternal rest to them, O Lord; and let your light perpetually shine upon them. Amen. ??
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) January 26, 2020
“Let me just tell you the impact he had on the game. His fight to win, his will to win. His ability to just never exchange baskets. His, “I’m coming after you every night, this is a dog fight.”
“All the stuff that he was able to do to change what it means to be professional, what it means to train,” Calipari said. “He changed what “master your craft” really meant.”