The Kobe-Calipari Connection

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kentucky coach John Calipari is a busy man these days, taking yet another team to the Final Four.

He’s got connections with some of the NBA’s best young players and with some of the league’s future stars that are still playing for the Big Blue Nation.

He coached each of the past two NBA Rookies of the Year, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, while they were in college at Memphis.

One near connection that surprised us, though, was Calipari’s link that never was to Lakers star Kobe Bryant. My main man Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports detailed their intriguing history on the weekend Calipari, the former Nets coach, was back in his old stomping grounds to punch the Wildcats’ ticket to the Final Four:

This was 1996. Cal was the new coach of the New Jersey Nets, fresh out of the college ranks at Massachusetts. Bryant was a high schooler from suburban Philadelphia, the first modern player who was academically qualified for college to say he was jumping straight to the NBA anyway.

The Nets had the eighth pick overall, too high, many said, for an unproven 18-year-old. With each drill Cal ran Bryant through at the Fairleigh Dickinson University gym, he grew convinced otherwise.

“If you watched the workouts, you’d say either this kid has been taught to fool us in the workouts or he’s ridiculous,” Calipari said, back here in Jersey, now preparing his Kentucky Wildcats for a Sweet 16 game Friday against Ohio State.

“I worked him out three times and I thought I was losing my mind. Obviously I wasn’t. He was really good. I’d brought him in a third time because I just said, ‘I’ve got to see this kid again because this is ridiculous.'”

This was no simple choice, though, and it can be argued it was a choice that 15 years later still reverberates throughout basketball – from the Nets to the Los Angeles Lakers to Kobe and Cal and, indeed, all the way to the University of Kentucky.

The circumstances made things tricky. Calipari was just weeks into his NBA life. Kobe wasn’t Kobe yet. The league’s prevailing wisdom was to choose experience – college juniors or seniors. It was a man’s league, and Bryant was a cocksure kid trying to buck the system.”

You have to read the rest of Wetzel’s fascinating story to understand all the twists and turns that Calipari suggests led to he and Kobe never working together as coach and player.

Calipari swears he was talked out of “standing his ground” and picking Bryant instead of then Villanova senior guard Kerry Kittles, who was considered much more of a sure thing at the time than some hot-shot prep star trying to do the seemingly unthinkable.

Clearly, Bryant changed a few minds along the way. And Calipari certainly seems to have learned his lesson not to bet on young guards with transcendent talent. Rose is considered by many to the be frontrunner for the MVP award. Had Calipari coached Bryant all those years ago, though …

“Look, it all played out for everybody,” he said. “I’m telling you I enjoyed coaching Kerry Kittles. Could it have turned out differently? Would [Kobe] have stayed in New Jersey? How about he says, ‘I’m not staying here. I’m not going to be here; I’m going to get traded in a year or two.’ All sorts of stuff could’ve happened.”

Certainly. Who really knows what might have happened?

Bryant might not have become the player he has, the champion he is and the league’s ultimate competitor. Calipari might not have gone on to become one of the most successful, and scrutinized, college coaches of all time. Things could have turned out totally different for all involved.

And Nets fans are left to wonder what might have been.


  1. L.A. BOY says:

    Kobe is just flat out great and if he was born in MJ’s place and MJ was born in Kobe’s place i guarantee you that we would be comparing MJ to Kobe and Kobe would be the greatest of all time and right now you would be wearing Kobes not Jordans!!!

    • nickos_life says:

      I agree with you LA Boy.. Kobe will be the greatest of ol time…. His name will leave forever in basketball..
      Even bigger than MJ..

  2. val says:

    i think Kobe n Tracy are both good player!!!!!but Kobe determination bring him to the top and championship….just do it…

  3. Wiskid says:

    It was predestined to happen. Kobe is the one, the real chosen one since he was a kid, believe it or not.

  4. Ran says:

    With all due respect… does anyone even remmeber what kind of insane draft that was? Alan iverson, Marcus Camby, (i think it was ahreef abdul raheem at 3rd but cant rmemeber) ray alan, stephaun marbury… and more and more… it really was an incredible draft… sto taking an unproven kid out of high school… does seem kinda of far fetched

    • I agree with you Ran. No one in thier right mind at that time would have picked Kobe that high. Not with the seemingly deep pool of talent on the draft. But Jerry West was/is jerry west,

    • Sarah says:

      Except for Jerry West. Who saw Kobe and said he was the best bball player he’d ever seen (that’s out of Jerry’s mouth not mine.) Furthermore, when he tried out for the Lakers, West saw him play and knew he had to have him, exactly what kind of player he was, etc., etc. Even Calapari said he was so unbelievable he called him back 3 times because he absolutely could not believe what he was seeing (Kobe smash on all the college students he’d seen.) I don’t think it far fetched. I think if you are a brilliant basketball wise as West is, you get the best. He did! Too bad, Calapari did’nt follow his 1st instinct. This article was printed on Yahoo sports if you would like to look it up. Both talk about how awesome Kobe was. West just had the wherewithal to get him…And yes, Kobe did refuse to play for the Hornets once he knew he had an opportunity at the Lakers. Wouldn’t you?

  5. Sam says:

    Well kobe is the man

  6. Mike says:

    If you want a footage where you can frame Kobe being MJ, take a good look at #5

  7. Em says:

    Sixers, Raptors, Grizzlies, Bucks, Twolves, Celtics, Clippers, Nets, Mavs, Pacers, Warriors, Cavs…. teams that could have picked Kobe. Hornets (then Charlotte), took him 13th pick, & immediately traded him to Lakers for Divac….
    Jerry West = Genius.

    • bunbury says:

      AGAIN….. the lakers traded divac for the 13th pick. THEN on draft day, the lakers requested the hornets to pick Kobe.

  8. The Teacher says:

    It wasn’t Kobe’s will that he got to the Lakers, it was his agent’s call. As Arn, the agent would think he knows that kid(Kobe) has talent and was planning to make Kobe, a profitable client. That’s why he’s pursuing Kobe to the Nets, because NBA teams don’t prefer to pick unproven high schoolers and if the Nets pick Kobe, the kid could gain lots of media attentions. Until he knew that the Lakers could make few trades to bring Kobe in. As a rising agent, Arn could have been blinded with all the opportunities Kobe would have with the Lakers, he may have thought that his client could become a star of a great franchise with a lot of history, a big market team that could spread the name Kobe Bryant throughout the world, and most especially the team is located in Los Angeles, where stars lives.

  9. Eduardo says:

    Everybody forget someone. Jerry West was the clue here. Between Kobe and the Lakers. It is a perfect match. the rest of the nba, just have to dream what would have beeing, SOORRRY!!!

  10. Bangs It In! says:

    Kobe works hard to be what he is today

  11. mr sensible says:

    Kobe would be a champion if he was a Vancouver Grizzly or Toronto Raptor. They would just build around him..

  12. ZULU says:

    He was prime theen and now. KOBE is…………………………….

  13. Gary says:

    I say without a doubt that Kobe would not have been a champion if he was on the Nets or even stayed at Milwaukee, but to say he wouldn’t be great is crazy. He had ambition and drive so luckily he need up on a franchise that could put his talent to work. I think if someone like Tracy McGrady was on the Lakers he would be considered what Kobe is today.

    • Ben says:

      i dont disagree with you that Kobe found the perfect team for him to max out his potential and that t-mac wouldve known a much greater legacy than he knows now if it had been him, but he would never have reached Kobe’s level i think… i love mcgrady but injuries are forever going to leave his full talent unexhibited
      …not to mention that kobe bryant is….well hes kobe friggin bryant haha

    • Smokey Joe says:

      You mean the Hornets, they drafted Kobe and he said he didn’t want to play for them and was traded to the Lakers. The rest is history as they say.

      • Brent says:

        he didnt say he didnt want to play for charlotte. the lakers and charlotte had all ready worked a deal on draft day that if charlotte picked kobe then the lakers will trade vlade divac for him

      • rick says:

        he didn’t ask to be traded, the hornets traded him because they were getting players in the positions they need (center and pf) thats why kobe and scrubs were traded for vlade divac

      • bunbury says:

        the hornets drafted Kobe per Laker’s request. Obviously, the lakers had already traded Divac for the 13th pick. just for your information, Smokey Joe!!!

    • Gary says:

      You know what slap me for that one. McGrady’s work ethic wouldn’t have had him on Kobe status. And my bad it was the Hornets like mentioned by Joe.

      • bunbury says:

        You can argue that tmac had a talent similar to kobe’s. but in competiveness and work ethic, not even close. let’s just put it this way, look at kobe and tmac right now, where are they at now.

    • prix says:

      Kobe become Kobe because of MJ and Phil …He played like Eddie Jones in his early years just having a showtime kind of game…and when Phil came to L.A and MJ his influence…a new kobe is born…and we all know who he is right now

      • kobezzz says:

        what influence? MJ has nothing to do wiht kobe smashing on everyone

      • Rush says:

        He didn’t play like Eddie Jones other wise Eddie Jones would have been starting at the 2 in Kobe’s 1st allstar game @ MSG. Kobe played like he was a raw talent out of highschool who had more atheleticism then 95% of the league back then. He could break your ankles & dunk on you. He wasn’t strong enough to post up majority of the guards back then like he does now! Eddie Jones though?! No direspect to EJ

    • Horace says:

      The Nets made it to the Finals two years in a row. If they had Kobe they definitely would have won both and more.

    • david says:

      lol tmac compared to kobe again to damn funny. go check there stats only one can compare pts per game but we all know who was da better scorer and all around player. tmac cant play no d n has no heart. he played in da east n wouldnt even win half da games but still make da playoffs wow so impressive. check there head 2 head match-ups when shaq wasnt in those games cuz he was hurt or he wasnt on da lakers no more kobe would own tmac n he would guard him n tmac wouldnt guard kobe. kobe even did him in wit only 1 good arm. kobe top 10 all time. tmac not even in da top 50.

      • Gary says:

        I wasn’t comparing the two. I was saying that T-Mac would be the Franchise of LA if he was on there from the start of his career. The trainers and connections with the lakers would have molded him the same way they did Kobe.

      • Ryan says:

        There is no comparison, but don’t let your Kobe-love blind you T-mac was a good defensive player and would guard (quite effectively) the more mobile 4’s that like to shoot outside. He used to give Nowitzki fits.