Kobe Bryant Became a Laker 24 Years Ago Today in One of the Most Lopsided Trades Ever

Jesse Pantuosco
June 26, 2020 - 4:47 pm

With the Showtime Era a distant memory and Magic Johnson’s iconic No. 32 hanging from the stadium rafters at The Forum in Inglewood, the Lakers’ decade-long dynasty appeared all but over by the mid-1990s. So they started a new one. It was on this day, June 26, 24 years ago when the Lakers launched their plan to do exactly that, getting the ball rolling by acquiring Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for talented seven-footer Vlade Divac. It would go down as one of the most lopsided swaps ever.

Not only did Los Angeles poach a Hall of Famer for pennies on the dollar (Divac would last just two seasons in Charlotte before defecting to Sacramento), but the financial flexibility afforded by offloading Divac’s bloated contract allowed the Lakers to make a free-agent splash in the form of All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal, the recipient of a seven-year, $121-million pact. While Bryant and O’Neal weren’t exactly two peas in a pod—their friction was well-documented—on the court, Shaq and Kobe complemented each other as well as any two players in NBA history. Championship parades became a summer fixture in Los Angeles again with the Phil-Jackson-coached Lakers celebrating titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Bryant, who ESPN recently ranked as the ninth-greatest player of all-time (naturally, Shaq was tenth), arrived in Tinsel Town—where he would spend the entirety of his 20-year career—as the 13th overall pick in the 1996 Draft following future NBA All-Stars Allen Iverson (first overall), Stephon Marbury (fourth), Ray Allen (fifth) and Antoine Walker (sixth). In retrospect, it’s remarkable 12 teams passed on Bryant including the Raptors, Grizzlies, Bucks, Timberwolves, Nets and Celtics (who he would later face in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals). However, at the time, drafting a player straight out of high school (particularly in the case of Bryant, who was only 17 at the time) was considered a risky proposition. In fact, Bryant, who had garnered interest from a number of powerhouse schools including Duke, Michigan, North Carolina and Villanova (a short drive from his hometown of Lower Merion, a Philadelphia suburb), was just the sixth player ever and the first guard to make that leap. Five rings and 33,643 points later, most would agree Los Angeles made the right call.

Knowing what we know now about Bryant, a hardwood legend with 18 All-Star appearances to his NBA credit, it’s fascinating to ponder what could have been. Could the Hornets have built a dynasty with Bryant in tow? What if Kobe enrolled in college, spending a year or more at an upper-echelon program like UNC (alma mater of his idol, Michael Jordan) before testing the pro waters? And if Divac had sabotaged his own trade to Charlotte (an idea he gave serious consideration), would Shaq have ever come to Los Angeles? The hypotheticals are endless.

It’s still surreal to think Bryant, who passed in a tragic helicopter accident this past January, is no longer here to celebrate the anniversary of his draft night and the monumental, franchise-altering trade that put him in purple and gold. The Black Mamba was a rare bird, a ferocious competitor who made a career out of demoralizing defenses with gut-wrenching, last-second shots and heroic fourth-quarter comebacks. And to think he could have been—and at one point was—a Charlotte Hornet.

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