Dave Cowens: Hornets never told Kobe they didn’t want him

David Stern welcomes Kobe Bryant to Charlotte and the NBA.

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In the latest saga of the draft-day trade that sent Kobe Bryant, the No. 13 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, from the Charlotte Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac, former Hornets coach Dave Cowens denied telling Bryant that the Hornets didn’t want him.

With Bryant in town for his final game in Charlotte, the trade was naturally brought up, with each side telling a different story. 

Bryant maintains that the Hornets never wanted him. The Hornets say they were forced to trade Bryant by his agent, Arn Tellem, who reportedly threatened to have Bryant play overseas if he wasn’t drafted into a big market like the Lakers or New York Knicks.

Yet again, Bryant denied that narrative, claiming the Hornets simply told him they didn’t need him over the phone and then traded him (via ESPN.com):

“Charlotte never wanted me,” Bryant said. “[Hornets coach Dave] Cowens told me he didn’t want me. It wasn’t a question of me even playing here. They had a couple of guards already, a couple small forwards already. So it wasn’t like I would be off the bench much.

“Cowens told me, ‘We don’t really need you here.’ Then I was like, “Oh, all right.’ I quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.”

Upon being relayed those comments by the Boston Globe on Tuesday, Cowens denied saying anything along those lines to Bryant.

“I’d never say anything like that to a player,” Cowens said. “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.”

Cowens had just been hired less than a month before the draft, and claimed he wasn’t aware of Hornets general manager Bob Bass’s draft strategy, which was kept secret even from his staff. 

The one thing he knew: If the Hornets drafted Bryant, they were trading him to the Lakers for Divac. Bryant hadn’t worked out for Charlotte before the draft, and the franchise claims to have believed that he had no intention of playing for them.

Cowens claims Bryant knew about the trade before he was even drafted by the Hornets, and that his call to Bryant was only to finalize the inevitable — not to belittle Bryant’s potential contribution to the franchise.

At the time, the Hornets were in win-now mode and felt they needed a big man after trading away Alonzo Mourning to get Glen Rice. Adding an 18-year-old project like Bryant — who the Hornets didn’t see historical potential in — didn’t make a lot of sense with the franchise’s timeline.

“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."

The move actually paid off for the Hornets in the short term, as they improved from 41-41 in the prior season to 54-28 in 1996-97. Bass was even named the NBA’s Executive of the Year. But that’s about where their good fortune ended, and the Lakers’ luck began.

The deal obviously made sense for the Lakers — retrospect isn’t needed — who teamed Bryant up with Shaquille O’Neal (and later Phil Jackson) and won three consecutive championships four years later. A near-decade later, Bryant led the franchise to back-to-back titles — marking five championships throughout his tenure with the purple and gold — and is now widely regarded as one of the top 10-15 players of all-time.

In hindsight, the deal is one of the worst trades in NBA history. The Hornets missed out on a once-in-a-generation talent for a roster that wasn’t good enough to beat Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The Lakers, meanwhile, built a mini dynasty and continued their run as the league’s most consistent contending franchise (until recently). 

Though Cowens says there is no bad blood on either side, he also says he and Bryant haven’t spoken since that phone conversation on draft day. His recent comments certainly won’t make that happen anytime soon. 

Too bad we’ll never know how it really went down.

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