John Calipari knows talent.
Think what you will of him as a person or coach, the guy knows how to spot and recruit young talent. So back in 1996 when he was the brand new coach of the Nets and he worked out a high school senior named Kobe Bryant before the draft, any chance you think he didn’t know what he was looking at?
Calipari talked with Yahoo about the decision.
“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.’”
Calipari wanted Bryant. So did Jerry West, the Lakers GM, and it took West less than one full workout to realize he wanted Bryant. The problem for Calipari is the Bryant’s agent Arn Tellem and Adidas powerhouse Sonny Vaccaro also wanted Kobe in Los Angeles. Better marketing opportunities.
West called Calipari and tried to talk him out of risking the Nets future on an untested 18 year old. And there was plenty more pressure put on the young coach.
Only Calipari still was enthralled. Tellem spun a 180 and now began claiming Bryant wouldn’t show up in Jersey, began saying they’d send the kid to play pro ball in Italy, where he’d spent much of his youth. Everyone now admits it was an idle threat.
“Arn [wanted the Nets to draft him] until he knew he could get him to the Lakers,” Calipari said. “Then he was against it. Arn was all over me, and then all of a sudden [I] get the call the day before the draft.”
Some people told Cal to stand strong and not get pushed around. Others suggested the safe pick – promising Villanova senior guard Kerry Kittles. It was the call of a lifetime.
“Everybody knows that I was talked out of [it],” Calipari said.
Who knows how that all would have shaken out — could Calipari have gotten through to the young and headstrong Bryant? — but that whole draft story just makes the whole process feel dirty.
Thankfully it’s not like that now. Nope. No agents and shoe people trying to influence picks. No players threatening not to play. Nope. Now it is all just perfectly clean and above board. All ruled by the BYU Honor Code. Of course this could never happen again.