Basketball Short Story
Kobe Turns Pro - 2
Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
Jeff Pearlman (2020)
Read Part 1
Around this time, Bryant began working daily with Joe Carbone, a personal trainer and re­tired professional weight lifter hired by the family to transform the kid from sapling to oak. The goal was to build someone described as "wiry" into a machine capable of enduring an 82-game season against large men. Before long, Bryant was a weight room regular, benching, squatting, curling. "We put about 20 pounds on him," Carbone said. "He's not a heavy gain­er, so the weight came on as he got stronger."
By the time he returned to Lower Merion for his senior year of high school, Bryant knew he would not be attending college. "He told me that summer," said Dabney. "I'm going to the NBA next year." If Bryant knew, it was something of a secret to those hoping otherwise. The college recruiting letters arrived by the boatload— from Duke and North Carolina, from UCLA and USC, from Delaware and Drexel and Villanova and Temple. This was the fall of 1995, and at the time Joe Bryant was in his second year as an assistant at nearby LaSalle University, his alma mater. He had been hired in 1993 by Speedy Morris, the head coach, and while the official reasoning was that the program needed a replacement for the recently departed Randy Monroe, the reality was different. "Did I think it'd help us get Kobe?" Mor­ris said decades later. "Yes. Of course. Joe was not a good assistant coach. He didn't work hard, he didn't actually know that much. Nice guy. But he was there so we'd get his son."
Kobe Bryant basked in the attention, took a handful of campus visits, pretended he was genuinely torn over what to do next. He liked to show off all the recruiting letters he re­ceived, and proudly stiffed Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, failing to show up for a scheduled visit to campus. He acted as if college were a legitimate option. Only it really wasn't. Because he had never signed with an agent, or accepted so much as a dime from a sneaker company, he remained eligible should he change his mind. But he wasn't changing his mind. The re­cruiting letters ultimately found themselves at rest alongside half-eaten burgers and empty yogurt containers in the Bryant family trash bins.
That June he had competed in the War in the Woods, an outdoor tournament held in Penns Grove, New Jersey. As Kobe lit up the court, his father watched alongside Gary Charles, veteran AAU coach and Sonny Vaccaro's confidant. With each Kobe three-pointer, Joe turned to Charles to say, "See that?" With each dunk, "Amazing, right?" When the game ended, Joe went serious. "Gary," he said, "I think my kid wants to come right out from high school. But we, as a family, would be worried because there are no guarantees."
Charles grinned. "What if I can help you get a guarantee?" he said.
Joe Bryant was confused.
"What," Charles said, "if I can help Kobe get a shoe deal?"
"Wait, you can do that?" Bryant replied.
"You know," Charles said, "I believe I can."

L-R: Kobe Bryant as high school senior, Michael Jordan Nike ad
That evening, Charles placed a call to Vaccaro.
"Sonny," he said, "Kobe Bryant can be the kid."
By the kid, he meant The One. Ever since joining Adidas in the early 1990s, Vaccaro had been seeking out the next Michael Jordan, jock marketing goliath. At the time, the shoe company was known for being dull and unimaginative and a pimple on Nike's back. Bryant's ABCD showings had opened Vaccaro's eyes, and there was a lot to like. Bryant was mature, Bryant was savvy, Bryant was handsome, Bryant could flat-out play, Bryant had NBA blood. "And the name— 'Kobe Bryant,'" Vaccaro said. "There's something about it. 'Kobe Bryant from Italy'— it's intriguing, it's a little mysterious."
Vaccaro loved what he was hearing. He reached out to Joe Bryant to make sure there was legitimate interest. Then he kicked back and watched Kobe piece together one of the best seasons in local high school basketball history, leading Lower Merion to its first state championship since 1943. He concluded his high school career as southeastern Pennsyl­vania's all-time leading scorer, with 2,883 points, and was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men's National Basketball Player of the Year, and a McDonald's All-American. "The most amazing thing was he never lost a drill," said Jeremy Treatman, an assistant coach with the Aces. "Four years, and Kobe never lost a game of one-on-one, a scrimmage, a sprint. He just didn't allow losing." By early in the season, word had gotten out that Bryant was thinking NBA, and the league's scouts (the ones who took him seriously— many did not) began to dot the Lower Merion bleachers during home games. Pete Bab­cock, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, flew in and saw a kid "do whatever he want­ed to without anyone knowing how to stop him." Larry Harris, a Milwaukee Bucks scout, came three times, often wondering if what he was witnessing was, in fact, real. "He wore number 33, and that immediately made me think of Scottie Pippen," Harris said. "He had this Pippen-like length, and also this comfort with his own athleticism. Once the game started, there was no messing around, no settling for jumpers. It was business. That jumped out to me."
Vaccaro was now more determined than ever to make Bryant the face of Adidas. Midway through the high school season, he convinced the company to spend $ 75,000 to move him from Southern California to New York City in order to be closer to the high school supernova. He never attended Lower Merion games, for fear that Nike or another rival apparel company would learn of his plans, but had Charles show up as his go-between. The two sides talked about fame and glory and talent. But mostly they talked about sneakers. The Bryant family wanted a financial guarantee, and Vaccaro and Adidas were willing to offer one. They would pay Kobe Bryant $48 million, provide another $150,000 to Joe Bryant, and make Kobe the face of Adidas. The sell, in a sense, was Michael Jordan. Bryant was told he would be the new Jordan— beginning with a signature shoe and a glitzy marketing campaign based around the concept "Feet You Wear." It played to both his ego and his love of basketball history. College? Who needed college. Kobe Bryant had decided to take his talents to the NBA.
When one is aligned with a sneaker company, and when said sneaker company is paying one millions of dollars to promote the brand, things can get complicated. In the aftermath of Kobe Bryant's going-to-the-NBA announcement, a slew of franchises asked him to come to their facilities for workouts. This is how things work in professional basketball, and a young player would have to be either dumb, uninformed, or supremely confident (nay, arrogant) to turn down an invitation. Especially a young player with no Division I college experience.
Kobe Bryant turned down plenty of invitations. For the not-yet-18-year-old guard, this was never about preferring the sun over the ski, or Pacific time over Eastern time. Nope, this was about selling sneakers. As soon as Vaccaro convinced Adidas to spend millions on the kid, it brought forth an immediate two-way loyalty. When Bryant (and his parents) went about finding an agent, he selected Arn Tellem, the Los Angeles–based power broker whose clo­sest friends included Vaccaro and Lakers vice president Jerry West. Tellem, like Vaccaro, knew the importance of a big city for Kobe the basketball player and Kobe the apparel salesman. The Toronto Raptors, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the second overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. The Vancouver Grizzlies, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the third overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. The Milwaukee Bucks, talentless, anonymous, and gifted with the fourth overall pick in the 1996 draft, asked Bryant to come for a visit. No. One after another, Bryant offered a sincere thanks-but-no-thanks to the majority of organizations that wanted to see him in a controlled setting. On June 24, he was scheduled to fly to Charlotte and per­form for the Hornets, owners of the 13th overall selection. That morning, without warning, he canceled. A day later, he did the same to the Sacramento Kings. No heads-up. No advance notice.

Early Kobe Bryant Adidas Ad
Bryant worried about his reputation, and whether organizations would hold it against him come draft day. Tellem promised all would work itself out. "We have to be selective," he told him. Indeed, the teams that had seen Bryant in person were blown away. Barry Hecker, the Los Angeles Clippers' assistant coach, wanted nothing to do with a high school kid when his bosses said Bryant would be arriving for a workout. "I was very skeptical," Hecker said. "I didn't think our organization would be a good spot for someone that young, and I also assumed he wouldn't be ready for a man's game. Well, that was misguided." Standing alongside Bill Fitch, the head coach, and assistant Jim Brewer, Hecker steeled himself to see the worst. Then— WHOOSH! Bryant was instructed to do the old Mikan Drill, which involves a rapid-fire series of close-to-the-basket hook shots. But instead of hooks, Bryant dunked. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! "Ten times in a row— left, right, left, right," said Hecker. "Jesus Christ."
Hecker
was impressed. As were the New Jersey Nets, owners of the eighth overall pick. Officially, they had Bryant come to the team facility for three different workouts. Unofficially, that number was actually four. Or, ahem, maybe five. "Which is probably against NBA rules," said Bobby Marks, the Nets' basketball operations assistant. "But that's okay." Marks was in charge of scheduling Bryant's arrival via train or plane. He would pick him up from the station or airport, drive him to the facility, arrange for a series of challenges. At the time, the Nets were simultaneously awful and young, and it wasn't hard to rope in a green player or two to square off against a prospect. So one day Marks requested that guard Khalid Reeves and forward Ed O'Bannon come in early and rough up the high schooler. Kobe Bryant waxed them. "It was always some sort of two-on-two or three-on-three, and Kobe had his way," recalled Marks. "He was the best player on the court every single time, and it was against established NBA players." Word quickly spread that New Jersey was a likely destination for Bryant. That's why Jerry West considered Bryant worth little thought. The Lakers were picking 24th overall. The kid would be long gone. Plus, he was a high schooler, and Los Angeles was looking for help-now talent. "I didn't know much about him," West later said. "We weren't focused on getting Kobe Bryant."
Tellem, though, loved the idea of Los Angeles— the big market, the historic franchise. He called West and asked that the Lakers bring his client in for a workout. So they did. Bryant was in town for a commercial shoot, and he arrived at the Inglewood YMCA at the same time as Dontae' Jones, the Mississippi State forward who had recently led the Bulldogs to the Final Four. Over the next 45 minutes, Bryant reduced the 6-foot-8 Jones to a bowl of melted ice cream. With Larry Drew, a Lakers assistant coach, monitoring the workout, Bryant and Jones played a series of one-on-one games that left the college senior gasping for breath. "You don't realize," Jones said later, "a 17-year-old could do all the things he was even attempting to do." In his three and a half decades in professional basketball, West had seen everything. Elgin Baylor, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Yinka Dare. This, though, was different. "Oh my God," West recalled. "You have to be kidding me. No disrespect to anyone, but as soon as I saw him it was clear this was a complete no-brainer. I swear to God, I would have taken him with the No. 1 pick in the draft over Allen Iverson. He was that good."
A couple of days later, the Lakers asked Bryant to attend one final workout. He was to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Laker star now working as an assistant coach with the club. Though five years retired, the 40-year-old Cooper looked a lot like the 30-year-old Cooper. He was sinewy, muscled, very much in shape. West asked his former player to give Kobe Bryant a beating. "Make him work," West said. Cooper nodded. "No problem." For 30 minutes, Bryant plowed through Cooper just as he had plowed through Jones. Slicing left, twirling right, dunking, gliding. West cut the one-on-one session short and turned to John Black and Raymond Ridder, two of the team's media relations heads. "Okay, I've seen enough," he said. "Let's go. He's better than anyone we have on our team right now."
He concluded: "Best workout I've ever seen."
Later that day, West reached out to Tellem. "Kobe Bryant," he told him, "just played like I'd never seen a kid play before. Obviously we'd love to have him as a Laker. Not sure how that happens, but  .  .  ."
The rest is history of course. West arranged a trade with the Hornets. Charlotte would take Bryant at #3, then swap him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Amazingly, the first 12 teams passed on Kobe and the deal came to fruition.

L-R: Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, and Lakers Coach Del Harris on Draft Night