Kobe Bryant was a Hornet for a week. He’s the greatest Charlotte athlete who never was

Kobe Bryant was a Hornet for a week. He’s the greatest Charlotte athlete who never was
Kobe Bryant wore Hornets colors in his tie and donned a Hornets cap on draft night in 1996, but he was never Charlotte-bound. He was drafted by Charlotte as part of a plan to get to Los Angeles, and to get the Hornets a center. (Source: RON FREHM AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - My first interaction with Kobe Bryant was in 1996; he was typically direct in response to my question.

“I’d be a Hornet,” then-Los Angeles Lakers rookie Bryant said, when I asked what he’d have done if the trade fell through.

The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant 13 picks into the ’96 draft. Then-general manager Bob Bass didn’t know what he had, because Bass dealt Bryant to the Lakers in a prearranged deal for center Vlade Divac.

On Sunday, four years after completing a Hall of Fame career, 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter died in a helicopter crash in Southern California. He was more than a fantastic basketball player, he was a compelling figure in NBA history.

Combative. Demanding. Wired to excel.

“I’ve seen great athletes. But nobody had the same drive, the whole package he had” entering the draft, Bryant’s former agent, Arn Tellem, told me last winter.

“Incredibly smart and driven. Focused, dedicated, an attitude that was critical to being great. When you combine that with physical talent and skill level, I just believed. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone like that at that age.”

Reportedly, after Dwight Howard became his teammate in the center’s first stint as a Laker, Bryant asked him to review some plays during a team flight. Howard said he didn’t want to dissect performance that way in the hours right after a game.

Bryant was incredulous that Howard, a player blessed with such size and ability, wasn’t similarly driven to chase perfection. That defined Bryant.

No one reaches the major leagues without a high level of assertiveness and self-confidence to complement ability. In that world, being the clear alpha male among peers is hard. Bryant was that guy — a Michael Jordan, a Magic Johnson, a Larry Bird. A competitor who didn’t just plan to beat you, he was intent on stealing your dignity.

The conviction that drove Bryant was rooted in his time in Europe as a kid.

His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, finished his playing career in Italy in the mid-1980s. Kobe became a huge fan of European soccer, where fan attention and expectation is unrelenting.

Promising European athletes are different from what we typically see in the United States in that they are apprentice pros as teenagers. They aren’t pampered; they compete with adults daily and excuses aren’t tolerated.

Bryant brought that sensibility when he passed up college to enter the draft out of high school. I never saw that shock-and-awe in Bryant that is typical of NBA rookies.

Part of what made him special was his conviction no one was better.

Bryant would have been the greatest athlete in Charlotte history. All due respect to Cam Newton and Dale Earnhardt, Kobe would have been bigger.

He was ours for a week, never getting closer than putting up a teal-and-purple cap on draft night.

I always found it odd that throughout his career he portrayed the trade as the Hornets casting him off. He absolutely knew better. It was an intricate plan, hatched and executed by Tellem and then-Lakers general manager Jerry West.

West was so tantalized by Bryant’s pre-draft workout that he made it his mission to engineer a trade, working with Tellem, a close friend. They shut down Bryant’s other workouts, intending to limit access to evaluate.

West offered Divac to Bass, and the Hornets needed a center. That was part of a grander plan by West to free up salary-cap room to pursue Shaquille O’Neal in free agency, as well.

In an interview with the Observer last winter, Tellem, now vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons, detailed his strategy: That with the advent of the NBA’s rookie pay scale, it was no longer key how highly a player was drafted, it was more important to place him with a franchise that could maximize long-term success.

“I believed that Kobe was going to be a very special player; that it didn’t matter how high he was picked, but that he ended up with the right team for his future,” Tellem said.

The challenge was dissuading New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari and general manager John Nash from selecting Bryant. At the time, Bryant’s European background was mentioned; how he could play overseas if he didn’t like where he was chosen. The Nets instead drafted Kerry Kittles at No. 8. Tellem and West were certain Bryant would last to the Hornets’ pick once the Nets passed.

“Teams weren’t going to take him for a number of reasons. Some teams didn’t know him, some were nervous about him as a player,” Tellem recalled. “Looking at those teams, it’s really amazing they didn’t take him.”

Things got complicated right after the draft when Divac threatened to retire as a player rather than report to the Hornets. Bass said if that happened, he’d just keep Bryant. Ultimately, Divac relented, playing two seasons in Charlotte.

Twenty-three years later, I still get occasional “What might have been” questions about Bryant from Hornets fans. Despite what Bryant said as a rookie, Tellem is resolute this was a done deal.

“He never would have been a Hornet,” Tellem asserted. “Charlotte had given its word to make this trade. Bob Bass was a man of his word, and so was Jerry ...

“He was never going to be a Hornet. That that is even debated (is absurd), that was never a possibility.”