Celtics legend Dave Cowens was hired to coach the Charlotte Hornets less than a month before the 1996 NBA draft, and he said general manager Bob Bass mostly kept his draft-night plan under wraps, even among staff members.
But Cowens was aware of one looming trade: If Lower Merion High School graduate Kobe Bryant were still available, the Hornets would select him with the 13th pick and trade him to the Lakers for veteran center Vlade Divac.
Nearly 20 years later, something about that deal has stuck with Bryant. On Monday night, after the Lakers lost to the Hornets, Bryant told reporters that Cowens had called after selecting him in 1996 and said that the Hornets did not want him.
“Then I was like, ‘Oh, all right,’ ” Bryant said. “I quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.”
Cowens was unaware of Bryant’s comments until they were relayed to him by the Globe on Tuesday, but insisted he’d said nothing of the sort. Mostly, Cowens said, the Hornets had believed the narrative floated by Bryant’s camp that if he did not end up with the Lakers or Knicks, he would play professionally in Italy. Bryant did not even work out for Charlotte before the draft.
After the Hornets chose Bryant, the guard shook the hand of NBA commissioner David Stern in New York and put on a Charlotte cap. Cowens said both sides knew about the deal at that point, so that when he called Bryant, there was no suspense or shock. But Cowens said he did not tell Bryant that there was no place for him on his team.
“I’d never say anything like that to a player,” he said by phone Tuesday. “I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. It wasn’t about him not being able to play for us. It was just it was already worked out.
“It was just a courtesy phone call. It was just one of those things that happened. We drafted him and then I talked to him and it was all pretty quick.”
The Hornets were coming off a 41-41 season and felt they were close to contending for an Eastern Conference title. And they had traded center Alonzo Mourning to the Heat in November 1995, so acquiring a proven player like Divac made sense.
“If we were going to make a move, we wanted to get a big,” Cowens said. “LA was willing to give up Vlade, and it wasn’t like we were trading Kobe for another guy who was going to play the 2 or the 3 position.
“We had Glen Rice, Dell Curry, and Muggsy Bogues, some guys who could play a little bit from the backcourt, and we were looking to try to win right away. We needed to get a big.
“We knew [Bryant] was good and all, but we didn’t know he was going to be the player he turned out to be.”
For the Lakers, of course, the deal was a boon. By trading Divac, Los Angeles cleared enough salary-cap space to sign Shaquille O’Neal. And Bryant and O’Neal went on to win three consecutive NBA titles together.
In the short term, the deal did not appear bad for the Hornets, either. Charlotte went 54-28 in the 1996-97 season and Bass was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year.
Cowens said he never stopped to think about how everything would have been different if Bryant had ended up as a Hornet. He said he has not spoken to Bryant since that brief draft-night call.
“For whatever reason, I never had a reason to talk to him in the games, and it’s not like there was any animosity on my end,” Cowens said. “I just never had a chance to be around him at something like an All-Star Game. I never coached on an All-Star team. But he’s a fantastic player, certainly one of the best of all time in our league.”
Cowens, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, said he admires Bryant’s game the way so many others do, and he thinks Bryant’s final game in Boston on Wednesday night will be a special moment.
“Whenever a great player comes back and has his bow-out game, the Celtics fans always treat him with a lot of respect,” Cowens said. “They just really love the game of basketball and know it in and out, and they’ve been through every type of emotion a fan can go through over the years, and they understand excellence and hard work. When a player bows out, they always give him a good sendoff.”