As Kobe Bryant‘s illustrious career comes to a close, how close were the Milwaukee Bucks to selecting him in the 1996 NBA Draft?
Whether you love him or hate him, and let’s face it there’s no middle ground, Kobe Bryant’s retirement marks a sad day for NBA fans across the world.
Bryant is that rare type of player who not only leads his sport in the moment, but becomes a transcendent player who defines basketball for a generation.
Looking back on his incredible career with only a single game remaining to be played, it’s perhaps harder than ever to believe that Kobe Bryant entered the league as only the 13th overall pick in his class.
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Although he entered along with a talented group of players including recent Hall of Fame inductee Allen Iverson, Bucks legend Ray Allen, and legendary point guard Steve Nash, if that draft was to be done over again it’s unlikely that any of those teams would select anyone other than Bryant.
As a result, it’s become a common refrain over the years from those who turned down the opportunity to select the Black Mamba on that night, to reminisce over how close they were to taking that gamble on the high school kid.
The Bucks selected fourth overall in the 1996 Draft, and after trading with the Minnesota Timberwolves ultimately acquired Ray Allen via Minnesota’s fifth overall pick. Allen turned out to be quite the player for Milwaukee and many others in the league, and so the Bucks should have less regrets than many others.
That’s not to say that they didn’t have their own Kobe Bryant near miss though.
As detailed in former Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams’ excellent book (a must-read for NBA fans) on the generation of high school players who made the leap to the NBA, Boys Among Men, Milwaukee was one of the teams who really did take a good look at Kobe.
According to Abrams, although the Bucks always had their eyes set on Allen, there were other trade options considered by then head coach/president of basketball operations Mike Dunleavy Sr. before their eventual deal with Minnesota.
"“[Dunleavy] wanted to trade Allen to the Celtics for Boston’s sixth pick and another selection in a future draft. He had another potential deal with the Nets and Calipari in place for the sixth pick and another future pick for their eighth selection. Dunleavy said he would have taken Bryant with the eighth selection and departed with the extra three picks.”"
As Abrams tells it, Dunleavy was so serious about this idea that he told Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father and a former teammate of Dunleavy’s, that Kobe could live with him and his son, future Buck Mike Dunleavy Jr.
So what happened next? Why didn’t the Bucks select Bryant?
There were a couple of reasons.
Firstly, then owner Herb Kohl was unsure about taking the risk on Bryant while another prospect that they really liked was going to be available to them.
Secondly, as the plans with the Lakers began to take shape, Bryant’s agent Arn Tellem then refused the Bucks an opportunity to host Kobe for a workout.
According to Abrams, Kohl’s instructions to Dunleavy then became very clear:
"“Well, if you can’t work him out, you can’t pick him.”"
And that was that.
It’s hard for Bucks fans to be too disappointed with how Ray Allen turned out, but still the thought of Bryant in a Bucks jersey opens up a world of exciting hypotheticals.
Considering Bryant’s Lakers (admittedly they were still Shaq’s Lakers at that time) won the championship in 2001, could Bryant have pushed the Bucks past Iverson’s 76ers into the Finals? As it was, the Bucks were so close with Allen.
How would the following decade have unfolded then?
As Kobe Bryant leaves a basketball court for the final time as a Laker on April 13, pause for a second and think about what the past 20 years could have looked like if he was a Buck. What could have been.