Can you picture how Lakers history would look if Kobe Bryant had never re-signed in the summer of 2004? How different we would view the team if they had lost him to the the cross-town Clippers in free agency?
There would (likely) be no championships with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in 2009 and 2010. No two jerseys hanging in Staples Center’s rafters. No 81-point game, or countless other memories from Bryant’s peak. Not to mention the narrative surrounding the Lakers and Clippers before this summer would have been A LOT different.
Thankfully for those who root for the purple and gold, that didn’t happen, although it was apparently much more perilously close to reality than most previously believed.
How close? Well, according to what longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler told Andrew Greif of The L.A. Times, the Clippers were already acting like they had Bryant:
“The deal was basically done,” said Ralph Lawler, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame broadcaster who retired in April after 40 seasons with the Clippers, recalling the summer of 2004. “Within the organization it was everywhere:
“Oh my god, we got Kobe Bryant.”
Okay, but seriously, just how close was Bryant to becoming a Clipper? Well, according to Lawler, some in the organization told him at the time that Bryant had verbally committed:
“They made their pitch to Kobe and it was a very strong one because it seemed apparent to everyone at that point that Kobe and Shaq just could no longer co-exist,” Lawler said. “Then it’s time for Kobe to excuse himself and go and Donald Sterling walks him to the door expressing concern. ‘Is this really going to happen?’
“Kobe turned to him and — this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people — he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’ So he walked out the door and [the Clippers] are all high-fiving each other thinking, ‘By God, we’ve done it.’
Narrator: The Clippers had not done it, as after a call with then-Lakers controlling governor Jerry Buss, Bryant re-signed with the Lakers.
Still, it’s crazy to think about how much that would have changed things. Under Buss’ leadership, the Lakers likely would have figured things out and rebounded decently, but it’s hard to fully recover from losing a star like Bryant in their prime. The Lakers probably would have kept Shaquille O’Neal instead of trading him and continued to be pretty good, but if they had lost their biggest star to their cross-hall co-tenants it undoubtedly would’ve been a hit to the way the franchise is viewed, and a boost to how the Clippers were looked at long before this current ownership group came into place and turned them into a respectable organization.
But again, that didn’t happen. Still, it’s a crazy enough scenario to almost warrant the full “Marvel: What If?” treatment.