Kobe Bryant's Predraft Workout Has Become Stuff of Lakers, and NBA, Legend

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Kobe Bryant's Predraft Workout Has Become Stuff of Lakers, and NBA, Legend
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LOS ANGELES — Considering how much work it takes to leap from great to truly historic, a legend is made more than he is born.

Truth be told, the two are interconnected. A legend fits his field naturally, and all that work gets done because he simply loves doing it.

The romance of the story is rooted in the same place: He was meant to be this, to do this…and become that legend.

With how well and how long Kobe Bryant has played basketball, he is a natural.

It is too soon to go all sepia tone in rendering Bryant's career while he primes for yet another adversity-overcoming, critic-answering season. But Bryant's last chapter is unfolding, and the Lakers must plot their future and hunt their next headliner.

They have spent much of the past six months since Bryant last played, and especially the past two months, dedicated to draft preparation, angling for a high first-round pick who can be a true star.

The Lakers, so lame without an injured Bryant that they landed the No. 7 overall pick (their highest draft spot in 32 years), brought in high-end prospects they almost never get to work out in their home gym. They measured, studied and challenged them to gather as much intel as possible.

And then Jim Buss went up to former Kentucky forward Julius Randle after his workout a week ago, shook his hand and looked into his eyes. Mitch Kupchak did the same to former Arizona forward Aaron Gordon three days later. Maybe they saw something in those eyes that clicked, something that will make this draft a certainty instead of guesswork, something so undeniable that the moment will someday become memorable.

Only one time in Lakers history did that happen.

It was Jerry West's predraft workout of Bryant in 1996.


Michael Cooper remembers a lot more than most do.

Bryant's workout quietly happened so long agoand wasn't necessarily destined to wind up being a big deal—that details are sketchy for many who were there.

Cooper remembers because he's the only one who looked down, hands on knees, at that dark-painted court afterward. "Wet and winded" is how Cooper described himself when West called off the workout after about 30 minutes, having seen enough. Cooper is the one who felt the sharp pokes from Bryant's already nasty elbows—and the blows to Cooper's NBA Defensive Player of the Year ego stung even more.

Mike Powell/Getty Images
Though he had been retired for six years, Michael Cooper's skills as a defender still offered Lakers GM Jerry West a good test of Kobe Bryant's NBA skills in a 1996 predraft workout.

Contrary to previous public documentation of that day at Inglewood High, the Lakers had a few other prospects on the court, scouting their skills with some two-on-two, weave drills, on-ball defense and other basic tests.

After all that was when West wanted Bryant to play one-on-one against Cooper, who had retired as an NBA player six years earlier. Cooper was 40 but still athletic, actively involved in the game as a Lakers coaching assistant and savvy enough to school the kid who just brought pop star Brandy to his prom.

It was solely Bryant on offense and Cooper on defense.

"Jerry said, 'Coop. Play him. Push him. Deny him. Work him. Play him physical now!'" Cooper recalled.

It started off with Bryant taking Cooper off the dribble. The footwork Bryant has always cared about more than any of his peers, then and now, was on full display. So was the explosiveness. Bryant got inside with his burst or just hit from the outside.

Bryant did so well, with such a steady hand against the guy Larry Bird once called the best he'd ever faced, that the foremost objective had been quickly achieved, and Cooper knew it.

"I'll go ahead and use the word: fear," Cooper said. "There was no fear in him. I think that was what they were looking for."

Aside from the trash he will admit to talking on that court, Cooper's other choice words from that day are "eye of the tiger."

"Kobe definitely had it at a young age," he said. "I think everybody saw that. I saw it."

West moved the game into the low post, where the play got much more physical. Cooper described it as "strange" how this low-stakes matchup—one guy, just 17, and the other guy, over-the-hill—evolved into a ferocious showdown.

Norm Nixon, Cooper's teammate on the 1980 and '82 Lakers championship teams, happened to be there as an agent representing a couple of the other prospects. Nixon was enthralled, yelling, "Coop! Get into him!"

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Taught a sense of the rugged play that awaited him in the NBA by his father, Joe, Kobe Bryant demonstrated a willingness to hand out as well as absorb contact in his predraft workout with the Lakers in 1996.

Cooper had his own pride at stake, so it wasn't just Bryant's elbows flying the way Jellybean had taught him in father-son one-on-one games.

"You can tell when you hit somebody—and it gets a reaction," Cooper said. "When you hit a scorer the right way, you know they feel you as a defensive player, and I got that a couple of times from him."

Cooper had no choice but to be aggressive. Asked about the one specific thing that has stayed on his mind nearly 20 years, Cooper said immediately, "He was stronger than I thought he was. He was very strong in the low post."

The very same way you now see Bryant forcefully take someone from the younger generation on the blocks before spinning and flicking that beautiful jump shot, Bryant was doing it to Cooper then.

Over and over, Bryant scored, leaving Cooper with the no-brainer impression: Bryant's workout went "extremely well."

Cooper, now head coach of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, played 873 games for the Lakers, seventh most in franchise history, just behind Magic Johnson's 906. Bryant has played far more than any Laker: 1,245.

While Cooper enjoys entertaining the idea that serving as the sacrificial lamb that day set the Lakers on the path toward more championships, he suspects he was a pawn being played later rather than sooner in West's chess game.

"I honestly believe this: Jerry already knew," Cooper said. "I think that workout was more the icing on the cake.

"Jerry knew this kid was going to be successful. He was going to be a franchise-maker. He was going to be a champion. All that workout did was solidify it more in his head." 


There were others in the gym that day to help West. Kupchak had already held the title of general manager for two years. Current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Larry Drew ran those early workouts as a Lakers assistant coach.

Then there were two guys on hand for no particular reason: John Black and Raymond Ridder worked in the Lakers public relations department, but on his way out of the office that day, West asked them to come along to see Bryant's workout.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets at No. 13 overall in 1996, Kobe Bryant soon was traded to the Lakers, thanks largely to the desires of Jerry West.

Black and Ridder tagged along as much for the chance to hang out with the legendary West as anything. So, the three of them took the short ride in West's car from the Forum, just six blocks west, to Inglewood High.

It was appropriate for some laymen to be there. Black and Ridder represented the masses who, at the time, couldn't conceive of some high schooler being a true NBA game-changer. Kevin Garnett had been underwhelming in his rookie season after averaging 10.4 points per game, and at least he had the size (6'11") that Bryant (6'6") lacked. 

"Never in a million years did I think we were going to draft him," recalled Black, who is the Lakers vice president of public relations now and wound up being with Bryant his entire career.

Black and Ridder proceeded to follow West up into the high school gym's bleachers. From up there, the eye of the tiger was just as merciless.

"He just destroyed [Cooper]," said Ridder, now the Golden State Warriors vice president of public relations. "It was unbelievable. You're talking about Michael Cooper, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game, and he just made him look silly."

Three words kept coming up as Ridder tapped into his memory bank of what Bryant was doing that day.

Relentlessly attacking him.

As Cooper himself hinted, that stretch of Bryant battling in the post with rising intensity became a knockout punch.

"Kobe was just posting up and taking that turnaround jump shot that he still makes all the time to this day, hitting that fadeaway from 16-17 feet," Ridder said. "He must've hit 10 or 12 of them in a row at one point. It was breathtaking to watch a kid do that. He had no regard for this being Michael Cooper."

Black and Ridder are in the business of postgame quotes, and they remember vividly what West said when he called off the one-on-one game: "OK, I've seen enough."

West's summation was plain: "Best workout I've ever seen. He's better than anybody we have on the team right now. Let's go."

The Lakers had gone 53-29 the previous season behind Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell, Vlade Divac and Eddie Jones. They were good enough that their 1996 first-round draft pick wouldn't come until 24th overall, where they would find more long-term value in hard-nosed Derek Fisher.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Newly hired from UMass, John Calipari strongly considered drafting Kobe Bryant at No. 8, before agent David Falk convinced the Nets to select Kerry Kittles.

In those days, each team sent a representative to the NBA draft in New York to be the point man who would stay on the telephone the whole time and relay the name of whomever should be officially picked.

Before Black left L.A. to fulfill that role, West told him a draft-night deal with the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 13 pick was in the works so that the Lakers could nab Bryant. Even before knowing Shaquille O'Neal would fill the void at center via free agency, West was willing to trade Divac for Bryant. 

West told Black that he didn't think it was going to happen, however, believing the New Jersey Nets were going to take Bryant at No. 8. Although Bryant had worked out for—and naturally impressed—representatives from many NBA teams, the consensus was that taking a high school guard so high in a very strong draft was too risky and it would be impossible to sell fans familiar with college names on this concept.

The New Jersey Nets had just hired University of Massachusetts coach John Calipari, and after three awesome workouts to make absolutely sure that seeing was believing, Calipari was ready to pick Bryant when others were not.

But with the legendary Lakers and the L.A. spotlight beckoning, Bryant was able to stiff-arm the Nets. Bryant's family, West and West's close friend, Arn Tellem, who was Bryant's agent, banded together in threatening the Nets that Bryant would play in Italy if selected by New Jersey—and even if it was an empty threat, it worked.

With Michael Jordan's agent, David Falk, pressuring Calipari to take Falk's guy, Villanova's Kerry Kittles, at No. 8, the forces of persuasion were too convincing; an hour and a half before the draft, the Nets stepped aside.

That's how close this retrospective about Bryant's brilliant workout against Cooper and a turning point in Lakers history came to being mere what-if speculation.


"Never in my life have I seen a workout like that," wrote West in his 2011 book, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, about Bryant's session. "When I said I had seen enough, I meant it. I knew who he was, and just from looking at his eyes, I knew what he wanted.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Jerry West wrote in his autobiography that he had never seen a workout as memorable as Kobe Bryant's first with the Lakers before the 1996 draft.

"Even though he was only 17 years old, Kobe was a once-in-a-lifetime player who could cast his shadow on the franchise for years to come. His fierce, competitive drive was innate, could not be purchased on the street or in a store or anywhere.

"You need to possess more than a little nastiness to play basketball at the highest level, and Kobe had that in abundance. You need to have the cold-bloodedness of an assassin, and he possessed that, too."

West was clearly enamored with Bryant's fire.

The argument that Bryant was born to play basketball most logically lies in his height and skills, gifted to him genetically by his father and his mother's brother, both of whom played in the NBA.

But what compels Bryant to do what he was meant to do burns in the fire that West couldn't resist. That's something you can't expect any son to simply glean from his father's DNA. It is Kobe's own fuel, and it has driven him from that workout in '96 through a Hall of Fame career.

Ryan West is Jerry's son, nine months younger than Bryant. Ryan was at the workout, actually, accompanying his dad and finding enjoyment in being around what his dad loved. (It's an even fuller circle now: Maxwell Kupchak, 17, has been hanging out and taking in all the workouts his dad has been watching this year.)

Ryan was asked by family friend Tellem, who thought it'd be nice for Bryant to spend time with someone close to his age, to pick Bryant up and bring him to the workout. It turned out that Ryan, who was playing high school ball at the time and dressed casually in Lakers practice gear because "I used to wear it all the time," wound up getting thrown into the workout to help run some drills.

Ryan recalls Bryant that day doing some one-on-nothing moves before matching up against Cooper. In the very way you know he mastered via hours of practice by himself, Bryant first did his thing against pretend defenders. He went all the way in for dunk after dunk—sailing for maybe 15 consecutive uncontested slams.

Ryan recalls his father finally interjecting:

"Kobe, we know you can dunk, OK? We want to see something else."

And so the legend began.

Michael Caulfield/Associated Press
Kobe Bryant averaged 7.6 points in 15.5 minutes per game in his rookie season with the Lakers.

"Michael Cooper was still known as one of the greatest perimeter defenders, and he was still in shape," Ryan said. "But Kobe just took the challenge and didn't back down from him. He went right through him. It was unbelievable for somebody at 17 years old to be that competitive and that skilled. He was incredible."

Few realize that Jerry West brought Bryant back for a second workout. For Round 2, it was head-to-head not against Cooper, but against Mississippi State's Dontae' Jones, a 6'8", 220-pounder who had just led the Bulldogs to the Final Four.

Ryan West picked up Bryant and drove him to that workout at the Inglewood YMCA, too. Even though this was pure one-on-one, with Bryant on defense half the time, it was not long before Jerry West had seen enough, again, and Ryan was driving Kobe to the airport.

"Same result," Ryan said. "The guy just couldn't stop him."

Jones, 20, was eventually drafted 21st overall by the New York Knicks. He was out of the league a year before Bryant won the first of his five NBA championships with the Lakers in 2000.

"He weighed more than Kobe. He was much more physical than Kobe," Ryan said. "But Kobe was just so competitive."

The younger West, despite his father ranking third on that Lakers all-time list of games played and standing as one of the game's true greats, couldn't fathom someone close to his age showing the kind of tenacity on the court Kobe displayed.

Ryan walked his own path, also shaped in some way by that day. He is now assistant scouting director for the Lakers, observing every one of the current prospects, looking for lightning to strike again while knowing it is unlikely.

It's also a different world now, with media even invited to cover the Lakers predraft workouts.

"Then, it was just about basketball," Ryan said. "No testing, no vertical, no stuff like that. He came in the gym, put his shoes on and went to work."

It was simple, it was right and it was spectacular.

In a nutshell, Cooper remembers his reaction to someone there on the floor that day.

"S—t, this guy can play."

This guy didn't become Kobe. He already was.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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