Revisionist history is always fascinating.
It's not always accurate, but it's fascinating.
The Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft and promptly traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Over the years, that story has been told, retold and embellished so much that the reality of that trade and the current perception are farther apart than, oh, Charlotte and Los Angeles. It's a timely topic because throughout this year's NBA Finals between the Lakers and Boston Celtics, we've heard all the revisionist history again. We've heard how Kobe and his agent shunned the Hornets, threatened that Kobe wouldn't play for the Hornets, and therefore orchestrated the trade to the Lakers. There has been more talk in Charlotte about Kobe and the Hornets the past two weeks than there has been about anything concerning the Bobcats.
A look back into the archives shows that the notion that Kobe orchestrated the trade is bogus. Kobe, in an interview during the 2000 Finals when the Lakers beat Indiana for the NBA title, said emphatically that he would have gladly played in Charlotte. Sure, he wanted to play for the Lakers, but who wouldn't? He also said that had he gone to college, he would have signed with Duke, so he liked the area.
And those who were involved in the wheeling and dealing at the time of the trade shoot down all the legends that have developed over the years.
"The deal was actually done a day ahead of time, and it was Vlade for a player to be named," said Bill Branch, the Hornets' head scout at the time who still operates out of Charlotte as a scout for the Seattle-now-Oklahoma City Sonics. "If I remember right, they didn't even tell us who they wanted us to pick until about five minutes before the pick was made. So it was never a matter of us actually drafting Kobe."
The trade was more about the Lakers' pursuit of Shaquille O'Neal in free agency and the Hornets' need to acquire a center than it was about Bryant.
In order to get far enough under the salary cap to make a valid pitch to O'Neal, the Lakers needed to unload Divac's contract, preferably to a team under the salary cap and preferably for a draft pick. The Hornets had traded Alonzo Mourning the previous year, were without a bona fide center, and were well under the cap after renouncing the rights to free agent Kenny Anderson. They would trade Larry Johnson to New York for Anthony Mason later that summer.
The Hornets reasoned that they could come out of the draft with no better than Vitaly Potapenko or Todd Fuller if they drafted a center, and jumped at the chance to trade the 13th pick for Divac.
"When you look back at it, when we made that trade, here was a 17-year-old kid who had played in high school," said Bob Bass, the Hornets' executive vice president of basketball operations at the time. "Twelve other teams passed on him. We made a decision to win now and not later. We had Dave Cowens as our first-year coach, and I wanted to give him a chance to win. I knew if we got Divac in here, we'd win. I didn't feel the same about Bryant. Without Divac, I thought we might have won 25 games."
The Hornets won 54 games, then a franchise record, the next season with Divac.
The Lakers might have been high on Bryant, but this was more about clearing up the cap room to make a run at O'Neal, whose contract was up in Orlando. Marc Fleisher, Divac's agent, remembers that the Lakers had a trade worked out to send Divac to Atlanta for the 25th pick if anything fell through with the Hornets. Had that scenario played out, there's little or no way that Bryant would have fallen all the way to the 25th pick, so Bryant and the Lakers couldn't have orchestrated anything.
"There were three teams involved at first -- Charlotte, Atlanta and Sacramento," Fleisher said. "Sacramento didn't work out for whatever reason, and then it was basically Charlotte or Atlanta. They asked us where Vlade would rather go, and he said Charlotte."
Divac later threatened to retire shortly after the deal was announced, and that would have nixed the trade. But Cowens talked him out of that threat, and the trade became official. After a few more minor deals and cap moves, the Lakers had enough cap room to sign O'Neal -- with Bryant, 17, as icing on the summer-acquisition cake.
Branch scouted Bryant twice for the Hornets while Bryant was at Lower Merion H.S., but he said that the Hornets "never even considered him" as a player they would draft and keep. Bass was an old-school GM who liked to deal but didn't usually gamble on young players.
Branch recalls how difficult it was to gauge Bryant's talents against inferior high-school competition. This was an era before it became fashionable to draft high-school players, before Kwame Brown, Dwight Howard and LeBron James were No. 1 picks straight out of high school.
Branch believes that the Lakers' Jerry West was probably gambling on Bryant to a degree, because that was West's style. And if Bryant didn't pan out, the Lakers would still get O'Neal in the process.
"Jerry West might be the only person who can really answer that, but I just think it (Bryant's stardom) would be very hard to predict, because you've got stories of guys who turned out good and stories of guys who turned out bad," Branch said. "The year before, L.A. wasn't even in the draft and they made a move to get into the second round at the last second, and they picked Frankie King out of Western Carolina. They specifically made a move to get one kid. So when you see moves like that and then they go for Kobe, you've got to think they're taking stabs.
"And I don't mean that negatively. I just mean for someone to say now that they knew Michael Jordan was going to be what he was, they're kidding themselves. We all thought Kobe was going to be good. But how do you really know?"
You don't. And that's why the Hornets were never anything but facilitators for the Lakers.
Twelve years later, obviously, it has worked out well for the Lakers. But the Hornets didn't get coerced into anything.
■ John Delong can be reached at email@example.com.