26 years later, it’s time to revisit the Kobe Bryant trade

Dec 28, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) waves to the crowd while leaving the court after the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Hornets won 108-98. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) waves to the crowd while leaving the court after the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Hornets won 108-98. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

It is one of the most infamous trades in the history of professional sports. Find any article discussing the most lopsided trade deals in NBA history and you are sure to come across it. Today, on the 26th anniversary of the Charlotte Hornets trading Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers, it is time to revisit the trade that sent the future Hall of Famer westward.

In the summer of 1996, the Hornets were coming off a somewhat disappointing season that saw them dip from 50 wins the year before to just 41 wins. The team had traded away big man Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat in a deal that saw Glen Rice come to Charlotte. Scott Burrell and Muggsy Bogues were limited to just 20 and six games, respectively, due to injury. Larry Johnson, while able to play, was impacted by an injured back in the stretch run of the season. Charlotte’s center rotation consisted of 42-year-old Robert Parish and a solid but unspectacular Matt Geiger. The combination of the Mourning trade, the various injuries, and the deficiencies down low resulted in a Hornets team that ultimately finished as the sixth-worst rebounding unit in the NBA. This set the stage for the 1996 NBA draft. With three centers coming off the board with the three picks directly preceding the Hornets’ selection, Charlotte was left in a tenuous position. Enter the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lakers general manager Jerry West entered the 1996 offseason with a team that had just won 53 games and made the playoffs. West, however, had his sights set higher; his goal was to clear enough cap space to lure star big man Shaquille O’Neal away from the Orlando Magic. One of the obstacles to that pursuit was Vlade Divac; namely, that Divac not only took up a significant portion of the Lakers’ cap space but also that he played the same position as O’Neal. In jettisoning Divac to Charlotte, West could clear the books to sign O’Neal and clear the way for O’Neal to slide into the lineup seamlessly.

At the time, it seemed like a fair proposition. Charlotte would get a much-needed big man to add to an already promising core, while Los Angeles would be able to pursue O’Neal while also acquiring the talented but unknown commodity that was Kobe Bryant. Context is also important; at the time, NBA front offices were hesitant to draft players straight out of high school due to the perceived lack of physical and emotional maturity in players that were so young. Just one year prior, Kevin Garnett had become the first player in 20 years to be drafted straight out of high school, and while he had a respectable rookie campaign, his Minnesota Timberwolves team only managed to win 26 games with him in the fold.

Another wrinkle was added when Divac threatened to retire in the immediate aftermath of the trade. While the trade was made on June 26,1996 at the NBA draft, it could not become official until July 11, 1996, which represented the end of the NBA’s moratorium period. Divac, who was born in former Yugoslavia, was in Europe at the time of the trade and reportedly was caught off guard by the deal. Having spent his entire career up to that point with the Lakers, Divac had no desire to move to the other side of the country and play with a new franchise. However, West convinced him to accept the deal, and Divac would help the Hornets to two consecutive playoff appearances and their only consecutive seasons with at least 50 wins in franchise history.

Both Bryant and the Hornets went on record over the years to share their sides of the story. Bryant famously fired off a tweet in 2014 to share his version of the trade.

While we will never know the exact conversation between Bryant and the Hornets brass, Bryant was a player who was known for having a chip on his shoulder throughout his career. It is not unreasonable to believe that he leaned into the narrative of Charlotte kicking him to the curb to fuel himself.

Dave Cowens, who was the head coach of the Hornets at the time, disputes that story. Cowens went on record in 2015 to say “I’d never say anything like that to a player … I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. It wasn’t about him not being able to play for us. It was just it was already worked out”.

Bryant, who grew up as a Lakers fan, was the beneficiary of a masterful manipulation job by his agent, Art Tellum. In 2003, Tellum told Sports Illustrated “Basically, I kept teams from picking Kobe by not giving their coaches access to him … I knew teams would be reluctant to take a chance on a high schooler without first talking to him and working him out”.

George Shinn, the owner of the Hornets at the time, seemingly fell for it. Shinn would later say of Bryant “His agent wanted him to play for a big market club that was in a bigger market that could pay more money”.

Shinn also detailed his conversation with Charlotte’s general manager at the time, Bob Bass, in which Shinn said “Bob, look, if this is helping us and is helping the kid, with him so focused. Let’s just do it, it’s alright. Let’s go ahead and do it.’”

Kobe Bryant was born to be a Laker; Charlotte was just a pit stop

With the manipulation from West, Tellum, and Bryant, it seems that it was inevitable for Bryant to end up in the purple and gold. While Charlotte was the team that traded him there, they were merely the team that ended up on the clock when the music stopped.

Although the Hornets would experience on-court success in the aftermath of the deal, making the playoffs in five of the next six seasons, the team saw rapid declines in attendance as Shinn grew less and less popular with fans. Just six years after the Bryant trade, the Hornets would relocate to New Orleans, with the expansion Charlotte Bobcats coming to town two years later.

Would a young Bryant have masked the poor business dealings and general unpopularity of Shinn? That is just one of the many unknowns attached to this whole saga.