Kobe Bryant was a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan growing up, so it’s safe to say he’s never been fond of the Boston Celtics.
But that didn’t stop Bryant from giving his all in a workout in Boston ahead of the 1996 NBA Draft.
The Celtics traded up to the sixth overall pick in that draft, a selection they eventually used to take Kentucky star Antoine Walker while Bryant went 13th overall to the Charlotte Hornets, who then traded him to the Lakers. Boston took a long look at Kobe, however, especially after the 18-year-old blew their doors off in a workout run by Celtics assistant coach and former player Dennis Johnson.
“I can’t think of any other way to describe his workout other than he was exceptional,” then-Celtics scouting director Rick Weitzman said, via ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes. “… There was nothing the kid couldn’t do.”
The workout apparently left quite an impression on Bryant, too.
“Dude, that was the freakiest s— I’ve ever (done),” Bryant told Holmes in an extensive interview. “I don’t know if it’s the mythology of the Celtic green or whatever, but they bring out the practice gear and you open it up and the shorts are there and it’s like the green glows. It’s like a different kind of a green.”
“I’m looking at it like: ‘Do I really have to put this on? I’m comfortable wearing the s– that I have.’ But I quickly moved past that, man. It’s like, I’m quickly about to become a professional. If anything, I understand the history of this franchise, and this franchise has done a lot of amazing stuff. So I was quickly able to move by that.”
Bryant also impressed Celtics officials during his interview session, displaying an uncanny knowledge of Boston’s rich basketball tradition while refraining from beating his chest.
“It wasn’t anything over the top other than, ‘I would love to be a part of this great tradition,’ ” then-Celtics general manager Jan Volk told Holmes. “He said all the right things. He sounded like a Celtic.”
So why did Boston pass on Bryant? Hindsight obviously is 20/20, but then-head coach M.L. Carr and owner Red Auerbach knew the risk that came with drafting a player right out of high school. Walker was a surefire talent who could contribute right away, while the thought was Kobe would need a few seasons to develop.
The Celtics, coming off a 33-49 season, didn’t have time to wait.
The rest, obviously, is history, and Walker’s résumé in Boston — three All-Star appearances, two deep playoff runs — makes it hard to blame the Celtics for making what then seemed like the logical selection.
Still, it’s fun to play “what if” and picture Kobe in green and white.
“I would’ve tried to carry on (Larry) Bird’s legacy,” Bryant said. “Absolutely. I would’ve done it with a tremendous amount of pride and honor.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) and center Jordan Hill (right) react during the second half of a game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.