How Calipari’s Decision Not to Draft Kobe Changed the NBA

With the University of Kentucky’s upcoming Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament, UK’s head coach, John Calipari, finally confessed his regret of not pulling the trigger on drafting future Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant.  In 1996 Kobe worked out for the then New Jersey Nets’ head coach three times and astonished the former University of Massachusetts coach.  

Calipari was amazed at what he saw and wanted him in a Nets jersey the next season.  After that, things went downhill fast.  Kobe worked out for the Lakers’ General Manager, Jerry West, who instantly determined he wanted to draft the Black Mamba.  West worked out a deal with the Charlotte Hornets to trade their 13th pick for Vlade Divac.  Calipari fell victim to Kobe’s agent’s bluff of sending Kobe to play in Italy instead of showing up in East Rutherford.  Calipari buckled and chose to draft Villanova’s Kerry Kittles.  Fifteen years later, the state of the Lakers, the Nets, and the NBA and its key players have all been affected by this decision.

Kobe Bryant’s career with the Los Angeles Lakers has been one for the record books.  Kobe has led the Lakers to five world championships, while winning two NBA Final’s Most Valuable Player awards, one regular season MVP award, a gold medal at the 2008 Bejing Olympics, a current sixth position on the all-time scoring list, and is arguably considered the best Laker of all time.  

However, no one can argue the fact that being in the Los Angeles market and playing for one of the most successful and highly regarded organizations of any sport hasn’t benefited the rise of fame for Kobe Bryant.  Individual talent can only go so far in the NBA.  Why do you think Carmelo Anthony wanted to play in New York City?  So far, the Nets have proven that they cannot create a superstar out of a star.  Would Kobe be the Black Mamba of the league?  Yes.  Would he have five going on six titles?  No.

Calipari’s decision to not draft Kobe was made prior to the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal and the brilliant hiring of the then six-time champion Phil Jackson.  The signing of Kobe would mark the return to glory for the Lakers and for Lakers fans that had faded away with the end of the Showtime era.  Phil Jackson would have most likely thought twice about coming out of retirement to take over the reigns in Los Angeles.  Therefore, the words “triangle offense” would solely belong to Jackson, Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls.  Vlade Divac most likely would have stayed in LA, meaning the signing of Shaquille O’Neal would have been up in the air.  If Kobe was drafted by the Nets, the Lakers would have remained with their original pick of Derek Fisher, but he would be their only first round draft pick.  If not for the drafting of Kobe, the Lakers could be like many of the teams in the NBA who are currently mediocre and overshadowed by the dynasty and success from their teams decades ago.

The marriage between Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers has been quite remarkable.  There have been a few handfuls legends to play for the Lakers since the team was first established in Minneapolis, but there are only two players whose legend turned into statues that stand erect in front of Staples Center: Jerry West and Magic Johnson.  These two names, their performance, and overall success on and off the court have created such a positive impact on the game that they changed the landscape of the entire NBA.  

Without a shadow of a doubt for Laker fans lies the fact that Kobe has a medal statue coming after his playing career has its final purple and gold sunset.  To think that Kobe’s career, the Lakers’ success in the new millennium, and the international and cultural phenomenon this marriage has caused could be different is something no Laker or Kobe fan wants to imagine.

Calipari’s decision to not draft Kobe followed him for a long time.  It has taken him fifteen years to admit his regret of this decision.  But Calipari can do nothing but roll with the punches.  He has been involved in the vacating of winning seasons twice with two different teams: UMass and Memphis.  This decision certainly marked the beginning of the end of Calipari’s NBA career, which eventually ended with him being fired by the Nets in 1999.  

However, Calipari is once again leading his team to the top of the summit.  Calipari seems to have found a comfortable fit with the University of Kentucky and is making a definitive impact on his players and the university.  

His recruiting skills are highly enviable among other universities.  NCAA analysts didn’t think UK had a chance of another great season since their entire previous starting lineup entered the NBA as first round picks, including the first overall pick, John Wall.  Once again, Calipari answered back with his brilliant recruiting and is playing against UConn in the Final Four this Saturday.

It is quite astonishing to think how much of an affect one decision can make on careers and organizations.  It seems that things turned out the way they were supposed to.  In my opinion, Calipari should not feel regret.  He seems to belong in the NCAA and at the University of Kentucky; and Kobe is where he belongs, in Lakerland.

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