1996 was a year of monumental events. An independent Taiwan held its first presidential election. The United Nations implemented a ban on nuclear testing. And Kobe Bean Bryant made his NBA debut.
We can’t ruminate on the career and life of Kobe Bryant enough. Legends have that effect— wooing us back to YouTube highlight reels, documentaries, and rookie card collections just to remember.
For all the warranted praise and remembrances, though, the truth is that Kobe was a complex man and player.
With this piece, we savor the greatness of Kobe Bryant, remember the faded details of his debut NBA season, and also embrace Kobe’s warts, which were most glaring as a brash young Laker.
Strap yourself into this DeLorean and ride with us back to 1996.
Kobe Bryant to the New Jersey Nets?
It almost happened. As the night of June 26, 1996, approached, the New Jersey Nets’ leadership triumvirate of John Calipari (Head Coach), Joe Taub (Owner), and John Nash (General Manager) had still not reached a consensus.
Should they select the untested but awe-inspiring phenom out of Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High? He had beat up on NBA veterans like Ed O’Bannon in the Nets’ private workout, but Kobe was still just a kid. The upside was immense, but wasn’t the risk just as great?
Or would the Nets instead stay in the right-hand lane with a more proven commodity—say, a decorated All-American like Kerry Kittles, shooting guard from Villanova?
Nets owner Joe Taub was prepared to take the kid. “We were ready to take Kobe,” Taub has said. And then the strangest thing happened: the Nets didn’t take Kobe. They took Kittles.
And with this decision, the courses of at least two franchises were forever altered. So what happened?
As author Jeff Pearlman details in his phenomenal book Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, the dysfunction in Jersey in 1996 had reached epic levels.
Taub wanted to go with the high-upside, revenue-assuring commodity in Bryant. Calipari and Nash, understanding that they did not have job-for-life status (as the franchise owner did), were wary of the time it would take to develop a ripe Kobe into an NBA-ready contributor.
And, with a little finagling from Bryant’s agent (who preferred the LA market as a destination for his client), the Bryant camp hinted that it might not be eager to play in the Meadowlands.
In fact, everyone in Kobe’s professional life—including Adidas, which signed him to a shoe deal before he was even drafted—wanted Kobe in Laker gold. It was good for business. Good for everyone.
Except for the Nets, who selected Kittles with the 8th overall pick. Now that the Nets were off the board, the Lakers would have to hope that 16 more teams would not select Bryant (the Lakers held the 24th pick in the first round).
That wouldn’t happen, as the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th overall pick. Sidenote: Bryant remains the most productive player in a draft class that also featured Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, and Steve Nash)
The Kobe Bryant era in Charlotte was brief. The Lakers traded aging (but still effective) Vlade Divac to the Hornets for Kobe freakin’ Bryant. Talk about one of the all-time fleecing!
Statistically Speaking: Promising, but With Much to be Desired
Observing Kobe Bryant’s rookie year from a distance, the New Jersey Nets’ contingent of Calipari and GM John Nash were likely giddy. Their concerns about a delayed development for the string bean-statured Bryant were obviously spot-on.
Bryant’s numbers in his 1996-97 rookie season: 71 games played, 7.6 points per game, less than 38% success rate on three-pointers, and only 1.3 assists per match.
The kid was raw.
If anyone in the Lakers’ front office (including legendary GM Jerry West) was disappointed—they certainly were—they could only imagine the frustration that Kobe felt.
By all accounts, the braggadocious rookie planned to set the league on fire from his very first NBA tip-off. That just didn’t happen in 1996.
There were certainly notable moments in Kobe’s rookie season, though. Bryant won the 1997 NBA Dunk Contest (still as a rookie) in captivating fashion. Kobe was not polished in 1996, to be certain, but the Dunk Contest made it clear: he had arrived.
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The very next season, Bryant would make his first All-Star game. A relentless work ethic (often at the expense of personal relationships) would spark a rapid acceleration of his career into legendary strata.
But, in 1996, Kobe was still just a kid. And, as a kid does, he got under his teammates’ skin time and time again.
Kobe: Brash Kid in a Big Boy’s League
As much as we admire Kobe Bryant the player, and the person he eventually became, even he would admit that there were plenty of learning moments along the way.
As the son of a professional basketball player who spoke fluent Italian, and possessed rare athletic gifts, Bryant never lacked confidence.
Based on the stories that his past teammates tell, young Kobe was downright arrogant.
He was comfortable being different, apart from the pack. As a young, black American boy raised in Italy and then re-transplanted back to America as a young man who called Italy his home, he was used to this outsider dynamic.
He never really had a choice.
When Bryant returned to America as a middle schooler, he admittedly didn’t know English slang. He had grown unfamiliar with American culture. Actually, being raised in Italy throughout his adolescence, he had never truly known American culture.
So he became comfortable being on his own, working on his game solo rather than spending the time trying to be one of the guys.
As a rookie expected to take his licks, this above-the-crowd bravado rubbed many of the Laker vets the wrong way. And they let him know.
In Three Ring Circus, author Jeff Pearlman describes many tales of Kobe’s defiance, and the extra (negative) attention it garnered from the Lakers’ older players.
From degrading veteran teammates in ways that seemed intentionally humiliating to refusing to just act like a rookie, there was much to dislike about Bryant pre-maturation. As the author tells it:
“Over the 2½ years I devoted to reporting and writing my latest book, “Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” I often found it difficult to warm to Bryant, who in 1996 went straight from high school to the NBA but left much of his maturation back in suburban Philadelphia,” said Jeff Pearlman, author of Three-Ring Circus
An even more pointed assessment of Bryant during his earliest years in the league:
“Bryant was generally selfish, arrogant, indifferent and — to be blunt — cruel. He treated teammates like discarded pieces of old furniture and had little-to-no use for a veteran’s advice, wisdom, engagement,” says Pearlman.
Robert Horry adds in an interview that “[Kobe’s] a good 18-year-old kid, and he’s going to take someone’s spot. So a lot of the guys were standoff-ish to him”. The standoffishness was, quite frankly, mutual.
“The stories are endless. Kobe challenging a rookie to a fight. Kobe mocking a fringe backup’s limited skills. Kobe demeaning another’s worth. And another’s worth. And another’s worth. He could be unambiguously mean.” Pearlman emphasized.
By all accounts, the Mamba’s rookie season was one of the trials, tribulations, and many a tiff. Fortunately for all, Bryant would soften up as time passed, even if he retained the same shortcomings that most of us bear.
After Kobe’s tragic passing, former teammate Robert Horry told a story about Kobe the Rookie on ESPN’s The Jump.
Horry explained how, because of Kobe’s young age, Lakers teammates were no longer able to bring beer into the locker room after their games. Though Horry told the story with a smile on his face, insiders know that this was just another strike against the arrogant young kid.
It was another chip that Bryant could rest comfortably on his still-bony shoulders.
The beer story serves as a necessary reminder: Kobe Bryant was a teenager whose parents had to cosign his first NBA contract because he wasn’t yet 18. He developed his identity in the NBA when he had yet to form his identity as a man.
This is not normal.
And, as should have been expected, Kobe had plenty of abnormalities throughout his career. Abnormally high peaks (championships, a marriage to Vanessa Urbieta) and abnormally low valleys (alleged cruelty to teammates, criminal allegations).
Kobe was truly different. For better or worse.
Growing pains being accounted for, Kobe was able to put forth one of the most accomplished (and most polarizing) NBA careers in the league’s history. His final resume as a player:
- 5 NBA Championships
- 18 All-Star Game appearances (18!)
- 15 All-NBA selections (15!)
- 2 Finals MVPs
- 1 regular season MVP
These basketball accomplishments are ultimately what we remember most about Kobe Bryant. And the Shaq beef. We remember that too.
In his life outside of basketball, many also recall his role as a loving father, entrepreneur, and creative.
But, as all self-effacing humans know, Kobe wouldn’t be human if it weren’t for the flaws. The childish arrogance. The highly-publicized lapses in judgment. The warts.
And so, we honor Kobe by telling the whole story of his 1996 rookie year, not the run-of-the-mill, watered-down drivel you can find on ESPN or People Magazine.
We present you Kobe, the legend and the flawed, human man. Take him or leave him. RIP.