Trading Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the NBA Draft rights to Kobe Bryant will always be one of the most brilliant moves in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Then general manager Jerry West put on a clinic in how to get the player you want in the draft to fall you, while also somehow clearing salary cap space to sign Shaquille O’Neal.
The course of Lakers franchise history would be altered had West not been able to execute that deal, but according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, that’s exactly what almost happened.
According to Bonnell in his obituary on then-Hornets GM Bob Bass — who passed away this weekend — Bass and West had “a tentative deal” for the Hornets to get Divac and the Lakers to get Bryant, but there was only one problem:
Like with the Mourning proposed trade, there was a complication. Divac, who loved Southern California, said he’d retire rather than move to Charlotte. So Bass - in a typically calm but firm voice - told me if Divac didn’t change his mind, the Hornets would just keep Bryant regardless of Bryant’s threat to play overseas (where his father had once played professionally).
Then-Hornets owner George Shinn backed up that description of events:
“Bob explained to us how much Vlade would help the team,” Shinn recalled. “Kobe’s agent let us know there was no way he would be a Hornet. It was Bob’s nature if someone didn’t want to be with us, he would work it out - like when Zo left, we actually got better.”
And while that might seem like bluffing, and maybe it was, it turns out Bryant was doing the same thing. If the Hornets had called him on it, he’s admitted to he wouldn’t have followed through on his threat:
A couple of weeks into Bryant’s rookie season, I interviewed him in New York and asked what he really would have done had the trade not gone through. Bryant admitted he’d be a Hornet.
Well that is certainly a darker timeline for the Lakers, and it just goes to show how many ways the team had to be lucky as much as good to assemble rosters as dominant as those Shaq-Kobe squads of the threepeat era. It’s also important to remember that Bryant wasn’t seen as nearly the type of can’t-miss prospect his career that followed made it seem like he should have been, otherwise no amounts of threats from his agent would have allowed him to drop so far in the draft.
It’s also weird to think about how much different Bryant’s career would have been had he been a Hornet. He wouldn’t have had the feuds with Shaq, but it would have been interesting to see if he could reach the same echelon as a player had he started out in a less stable franchise. We’ll never find out, though, which is nice for Lakers fans, who are surely pretty content with the way things turned out and aren’t asking a whole lot of what-ifs about it.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.