Luck was no longer on the side of the Boston Celtics in 1996. When the draft came around that June, the Celtics were nearly three years removed from the death of Reggie Lewis, and therefore, their dynasty. These were dark times for the franchise. They’d already lost Len Bias, a potential franchise-changer who, paired with Lewis, would have created a potentially devastating duo to carry on the legacy of the recently departed Big 3.
They were heading into a draft that would eventually come to be known as the best class ever. The 1996 draft featured guys like Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Ray Allen… and Antoine Walker and Kobe Bryant.
You see where this is going.
Baxter Holmes has a very revealing story today about the Celtics workout process when it came to Kobe Bryant. To say they were blown away is an understatement. His workout was basically flawless. He passed each drill with flying colors. On the court, he was sublime, even as a high schooler. Off the court…
“When I tell you this — and I don’t like to say a lot of good things about the Lakers — but I am absolutely telling you this straight up: He was unbelievable in the interview,” Carr says. “He was the best interview that I’ve ever been a part of. Kobe knew the league as well as anyone. He knew the Celtics from a historical standpoint. He knew the Celtics probably better than most Celtics did at 17 years old.”
Remember, though, the Celtics were “the Celtics,” and they were maybe a little too desperate to recapture that glory. Because when push came to shove, ML Carr and Jan Volk (coach and GM at the time) decided to go for a more proven entity… Antoine Walker of Kentucky. Carr describes the conversation he had with Red Auerbach about making the pick:
“I think this kid is going to be a hell of a player,” Auerbach told Carr. “But it can go either way. He seems to be solid, but he’s a high school kid. You’ve got to make a choice based on what you need today. But I think he’s a hell of a player.”
With that, Auerbach took a long draw on his cigar. It was said he smoked six a day — he favored Hoyo de Monterrey — and he especially loved lighting up a ceremonial stogie at the end of a blowout win, a tradition that was as much about celebrating as it was about taunting (and infuriating) opponents.
“OK,” Auerbach told Carr, “now it’s up to you to make a decision.”
It’s an extensive piece, and very well worth your time. I highly suggest you go read it.
Drafting is not an exact science… and as is mentioned in the piece, it was hard to project Kobe to become one of the best of all time. It’s also hard to look back on his path and say it would have gone the exact same way. Let’s pretend Kobe was drafted by Boston and became a Celtic… other things would have needed to fall into place. Kobe was shaped by his path in Los Angeles… by playing (and feuding) with Shaq… by Phil Jackson… by Pau Gasol. Would similar things have happened in Boston? Would Rick Pitino have still come here? Would the team have still tanked in an effort to get Tim Duncan?
Ah… the 1996-97 season… and the indictment on this whole thing.
The Celtics chose Antoine Walker because he was more NBA ready then went into obvious tank-mode to try to get an obviously transcendent player. If the team was looking ahead to that draft… why didn’t they just take Kobe and give him a year to figure his own stuff out?
We’ll never know. And before you jump into the comments to say you’d never want Kobe on this team… remember this is pre-“Kobe” Kobe. All the stuff you hate about him didn’t exist then. He was just some kid out of high school who went to the prom with Brandy.
It’s fun (or maybe not so fun) to think about what could have been. The Celtics were “this” close to radically changing their history.