Excerpted from ‘Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution’ by Jonathan Abrams. Published by Crown Archetype. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.
The “Showtime” Lakers that captured five championships had long lost their luster by the summer of 1996. The Houston Rockets had jettisoned the Lakers from the playoffs’ first round. The dry spell between titles grated on Jerry West. As a player, West’s nickname was “Mr. Clutch,” for his penchant for playing well in crunch time. His silhouette would eventually be used as the league’s logo. West earned 14 All-Star selections in his playing career with the Lakers. Annually, his Lakers clashed with Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals and West lost six times.
West’s Lakers also lost in the 1970 Finals to the Knicks. His long-awaited NBA title did not arrive until the Lakers finally triumphed over the Knicks in 1972. Winning did not necessarily alleviate West’s pain and the frustration that accompanied losing. But it at least stiff-armed those emotions until the next game, when winning and losing again decided his self-worth. He had a textbook jumper and played defense tenaciously, working himself into a pregame hysteria that left him physically ill.
The transition to coaching when he could no longer control the games through his own play went about as smoothly as one could expect. West coached the Lakers for three short years and later turned to scouting. He became general manager prior to the 1982-1983 season, a position where he could still outmaneuver his opposition but that left him a step removed from the taxing emotions that came with being on the court.
The 1996 draft represented a second priority to West. The free agency period would have a larger leaguewide impact. Heavyweights like Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard, Reggie Miller, and Allan Houston were all available. West cast his line at the one whose signing would cause a seismic shift around the NBA. The league had never seen a player like Shaquille O’Neal, with his combination of size, speed, agility, and more size. O’Neal had guided the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance, but was disenchanted with the organization and, more importantly, with living in Orlando.
West knew of O’Neal’s interest in acting and music careers. Los Angeles resonated as the perfect locale for such pursuits. O’Neal confirmed his interest, but waited to see how large a salary West and the Lakers would offer. The Lakers needed to find a way to dump money owed on current contracts. The more contracts discarded, the more money they could offer O’Neal.
Vlade Divac had two years and $8.3 million left on his contract. He remained the biggest obstacle to extending O’Neal a gargantuan offer. West called several teams and offered Divac in trades. The cold market for a quality center – like the reaction he had received from John Nash – surprised him. “It was amazing to me that people did not have an interest in doing something like that,” West recalled. “People thought something must be wrong with him. There wasn’t. He’s a terrific player and a better person. Having said that, our eyes were on Shaquille.”
As West finagled to find a trade partner, Arn Tellem called him in the weeks leading up to the draft. Bryant had already inked a deal with Adidas and the William Morris Agency, an entertainment talent company. Bryant had yet to play a single NBA game. Still, he had a boyish exuberance and charm that corporations felt certain would appeal beyond the NBA. Bryant was in town for a commercial shoot and wanted to work out for the Lakers. The Lakers had one planned the next day with Dontae’ Jones, a bruising forward who had recently lifted Mississippi State to the Final Four. West knew of Bryant, but had not paid much attention to him. The Lakers possessed the draft’s 24th pick. West expected Bryant to be gone by then. He allowed Bryant to join the workout almost as an afterthought.
Jones arrived at the Inglewood YMCA shortly after sunrise with his college roommate. The court bore the scuffs from the frequent cuts and stops of previous players. One rim slanted toward the earth, the result of it bearing the weight of a dunk or several too many. Jones had studied all the draft’s potential first rounders, wanting to know their tendencies should he face them in a workout. The word on Bryant? Talented, but still a high school player. Jones had bullied around college’s best. “My thing was I had to go represent for college basketball, just to let him know that there are some things you must do as a young man to be prepared for the next level,” Jones said. His confidence had crested to an all-time high. Jones had had one of the better college tournaments and spent the summer working out with NBA star Penny Hardaway in Memphis.
Larry Drew, a Lakers assistant coach, monitored the workout. Jones, 21, figured the Lakers brass wanted to see how Bryant physically matched up against a more developed player. “I think they got exactly what they were looking for, because he was a load,” Jones said. Drew instructed the pair to first play a fullcourt game of one-on-one to four.
“You could just tell,” Jones remembered. “You could see what his future was going to look like. I was amazed by just playing against him. I did what I was supposed to do, but that’s a seventeen-year-old kid. That dude was determined to do some of the things he couldn’t do and I guess I was an obstacle right there for him to try to figure out a way to chop down.”
They played one-on-one to four from halfcourt. They played one-on-one, in which the offensive player had to go right and use only three dribbles before hoisting a shot. They transferred the same rules to a game on the left side of the floor. Jones got in a point and a game here and there. Some of the drills catered to him and his size advantage over Bryant. But it was the established college player trying to hold his own against a high schooler. Bryant’s footwork and finesse were already beyond those of anyone Jones had ever played in college. Bryant generally found the shot he wanted within those three dribbles. “You don’t realize a seventeen-year-old could do all the things he was even attempting to do,” said Jones, who became a first-round selection of the Knicks. The workout only lasted about 45 minutes. A dismayed Jones stretched out on the floor afterward. Meanwhile, West watched it all. “You saw the incredible skills that he had for a young kid,” West said. “The one thing that we all saw was that he had an immense desire to compete. He just didn’t want to stop competing, and in an [hour-long] workout it was something to see.”
The performance piqued West’s interest. He wanted another look, this one to confirm his gut feeling. He approached John Black and Raymond Ridder, members of the team’s public relations staff, and asked if they wanted to attend another of Bryant’s workouts. Mitch Kupchak, West’s assistant general manager, piled into West’s car, along with Black and Ridder. Bryant’s second Lakers workout figured to be more challenging. Bryant would play against Michael Cooper at Inglewood High School.
Cooper, 40, had been retired from the NBA for five years, but maintained a slim, agile frame. He was a key part of the Lakers’ “Showtime” championship teams and an in-your-face defender, described by Larry Bird as the best he had ever faced. Cooper did not think much of the workout entering the gym. West had requested it, telling Cooper that he wanted to see how a high school kid named Kobe would fare against him. Cooper learned that Bryant was actually Joe Bryant’s son only a couple of hours before squaring off against him. Cooper and Joe Bryant had matched up before in games. “I almost had a flashback,” Cooper said. “Now, if I would have done that, it would have been a different thing.”
He arrived at a dark gym, almost gloomy. No matter. Bryant lit Cooper up.
They spent nearly the whole session playing one-on-one. Cooper played defense the bulk of the time. He tried using his physicality over Bryant. Bryant scored at will. He unleashed a full repertoire of fadeaway jump shots and drives to the baskets with reverse layups and dunks.
“He was playing like he had just graduated from college, twenty-one, twenty-two years old, and I think that was the most impressive thing about it,” Cooper said. “All of us were very, very impressed with him and Jerry has that innate ability to see beyond what other people see at the moment and obviously, he saw greatness.”
West turned to Black and Ridder about 25 minutes into the workout. “OK, I’ve seen enough,” he said. “Let’s go. He’s better than anyone we have on our team right now.” The trio rose from their seats. “Best workout I’ve ever seen,” West continued.
West walked past Cooper on his way out. “I thought you were supposed to guard him,” West quipped.
The group returned to the Inglewood Forum. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get this guy,” West said during the drive back, almost to himself.