Back in March, ESPN published this fascinating oral history of the workout that changed the NBA — the day in June 1996 when Laker legend and GM Jerry West brought a skinny 17-year-old kid from Philadelphia out to Los Angeles for a private workout ahead of the upcoming NBA draft.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t a complete secret, but what followed his workout is now a legendary story that ended up with him being drafted to the most storied franchise in the NBA where he — along with Shaquille O’Neal, and guided by Coach Phil Jackson — would resurrect the “Showtime” era and take the NBA to the next level following the retirement of Michael Jordan.
West’s teenage son Ryan drove to pick Kobe up at the hotel where the Lakers had stashed him — and found Kobe carrying his own basketball. Maybe he thought the Lakers wouldn’t have an extra ball for him at the workout.
The Lakers played in the Los Angeles Forum at the time, but that’s not where the workout was to take place, because the Forum’s basketball floor was taken up during the offseason when the area was used for other events. Instead, West had his son drive Kobe to the Inglewood YMCA gym, not too far from the Laker’s home court if you take the surface streets, but a completely different world from an air-conditioned, NBA arena with 17,000+ seats.
Kobe had worked out for several teams already by that point, and the word was starting to get around that he might be something special. But while players had come directly out of high school and into the NBA before him, those were always the “big men” — Kobe was the first guard to attempt to make the huge leap from high school basketball to the best league in the world.
Jerry West, still a skeptic that a high school player could transition easily to the NBA game, decided to not make things easy.
Michael Cooper was a mainstay of the Kareem-Magic-Worthy era of the Laker Showtime Dynasty, regarded as the best defensive player in the NBA during that period. Cooper was retired from the NBA at the time of the Kobe workout and was approaching 40. But, he was still an athletic freak who — most importantly — knew every dirty trick in the book when it came to being an elite defender in the NBA.
Here are some of Cooper’s memories of the workout that are scattered throughout the story:
At the very beginning, I got right in there and got my hands right up in his face. Guys hate that, especially young guys. He just rose up over my hand like I wasn’t even there. I was planning on him not being that strong and that he’d be intimidated.
There were certain things Jerry wanted to see. The big one was: Could he get to a spot? Great players can always get to their spot. Spots, and the angles you take to get there, are so important in basketball. You might not always hit the shot, but if you can get there, that’s when you feel like you’ll hit 8 out of 10, or 9 out of 10. Jerry requested that he get to an exact spot, say, at the elbow, every time. Not a foot away, not two feet away, not an inch away.
So that was the first thing I admired about Kobe. I had done this, taken this away against Larry Bird, Dr. J, and a young Michael Jordan, and here’s a young man fresh out of high school and I’m trying to deny him certain places on the court, and Kobe was able to get to his spot, I’d say, nine times out of 10.
I was banging on him. I was hitting him with my forearm and he was banging me right back. I hit him hard one time, in the kidney and it was a cheap shot, on purpose. It was just that he was backing me down, backing me down and so I hit him. He felt it, you could tell. I said, “Hey man, sorry about that,” but Kobe was so focused on the workout he was like, “No, no, no problem, Coach, let’s go.” When he’d hit me with an elbow he would say, “Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” and I said, “Quit treating me like an old man.” But no, Kobe didn’t talk. And it was a good thing. Jerry hated that. He always said, why are you fraternizing with the enemy out there? Why are you talking to the enemy when you should be trying to kick their ass? No, Kobe had one thing on his mind: He wanted to play in Los Angeles.
When we moved to the low post, Jerry took off the restraints. Kobe didn’t have to hit a certain spot or go a specific way anymore. So I didn’t know what he was going to do. I was at his mercy. Left-hand hooks. One-bounce turnarounds. And he had that little shake shot, that little MJ shake with his back to the basket and that fall-away shot. And he was able to get up and get his shot off and sink it time after time after time.
When I finished that workout, and my part in it was probably only 20-30 minutes, it felt like I had played a seven-game series with the Celtics again. Like I had just finished facing Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. My body was aching something bad.
After the workout ended, and Kobe was back in the car with Ryan West headed back to his hotel, Ryan remembers this:
After the workout, it was so funny, driving back to Santa Monica he wanted to go find an empty gym to go play in and he was trying, the whole time, to convince me to take him somewhere to find a pickup game. I finally said, “Kobe, you’re in the pre-draft process for the NBA. I don’t know if you want to risk getting injured.” Knowing him, when I dropped him off at the hotel he probably found a way to go somewhere and play or at least work on his game.
The story is a great read, with the recollections of many who were either involved with or present at the workout, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.
But a fitting summary of that day is provided by Raymond Ritter, who was a member of the Laker’s PR staff at the time.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then Jerry stands up after what felt like only 20 minutes and, I’ll never forget this, he says: “Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen enough. This kid’s better than anybody we have on our team right now.”
Kobe was 17.
Jerry West was right.