Kobe and the kingmaker's quest for revenge

Kobe Bryant was one of the early prep-to-pro successes. But the decision to leap to the NBA wasn't simply his own, Roland Lazenby reveals. NBAE via Getty Images

In this excerpt from "Showboat: The life of Kobe Bryant," it's revealed that Kobe Bryant landed in the NBA at age 17 because he was the instrument of Sonny Vaccaro's desire for revenge against Nike and the NCAA.

Vaccaro, the basketball kingmaker and marketing mind, had been fired by Nike in 1991, and he had been caught up in a long-running NCAA investigation of his friend, UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. Vaccaro went to work for Adidas and chose the strategy of moving into youth basketball to gain a market advantage. His plan: to steal the next great talent from the NCAA and Nike. Bryant was an unknown 15-year-old in 1994 when Vaccaro met him at a summer camp, but it was then that he realized Kobe had the "it" factor to be the "next Michael Jordan."

His effort to secure Bryant's talent for Adidas was "my most clandestine thing," Vaccaro admitted. As with many of his actions, Vaccaro's efforts to encourage Bryant to turn pro right out of high school changed the course of basketball, evidenced today in an NBA populated by youth. Likewise, no longer does the NCAA have the same grip on elite talent it once held.

The doctor apparently had no more interest than as a family friend of the Bryants' and as a fan eager to share in the moment. The shared experience laid the groundwork for Rines and the family to join forces that spring of 1996 in an effort to consider the offer Adidas was making to Kobe.

To the mainstream media, however, Sonny Vaccaro managed to keep his mission secret. Many at the NCAA and in the press assumed that Vaccaro's presence in New York meant that he was seeking to influence the college choice of troubled high school star Lamar Odom, who played for Gary Charles's AAU team.

"People were saying Sonny was trying to get to Lamar," Charles said with a laugh, "and meanwhile the bigger prize was a hundred miles south."

Indeed, as the months went on and Vaccaro learned more about Bryant, about just how unparalleled his work ethic was, the more eager Vaccaro became to close the deal.

"I was the middle guy," Charles explained. "It was Joe and I. And, another thing, we did not want Nike to smell what was going on."

Charles explained that he had carefully curried favor with Joe Bryant. "I felt that if I had any chance of getting Kobe I had to develop that relationship with Joe and keep it moving forward," he said. "By that spring, Joe and I had a great relationship that was unshakable at the time. I trusted and believed in him, and he believed in me."

Although Vaccaro and Charles knew that Pam and Kobe would be the ultimate decision makers in the deal, they took care to conduct all communications through the father.

"We never wanted Joe and Pam to think that we were overstepping our boundary," Charles explained.

Charles did check in with Kobe himself from time to time. "Kobe didn't show me any side of him that had doubt," the Long Island AAU coach said. But there was a point during Lower Merion's season when Bryant actually did experience considerable doubt about the decision to turn pro. It lasted for about a week as he lingered on thoughts of Duke and the Cameron Crazies, wondering what college life would be like. Bryant's competitive nature had really connected with the fiery Duke coach from the start. There were even whispers about Joe joining the Duke staff, but even if that was anything more than rumor, Krzyzewski never made an offer.

The social benefits of college that attracted other young players had no tremendous allure for Bryant. One of his high school teammates would later recall Kobe stopping by a party on occasion and seeming totally out of his element, uncomfortable and out of sorts. His attendance at any party that season was likely the teen's attempt to measure that social element, to gain a sense of what he might be missing.

Finally, Bryant addressed his doubt with his father one day in the family kitchen.

"When is the first time you ever doubted yourself?" Joe asked. "You never doubted yourself with high school. All those people who said you can't do this and you can't do that, you proved them wrong. Why start now? The only advice I can give you is, why start now?"

Bryant thought about what his father said and finally concluded that he was right.

"Kobe knew what was going on, but he wasn't part of the deal," Charles said. "I'd talk to the dad, and he would tell Kobe. And I'd say, 'Kobe good?' He'd say, 'Yeah, Kobe good.'"

In all their time building the relationship with the Bryants, Charles and Vaccaro had still not given the exact parameters of the deal, exactly how much money they would be offering, how much would be guaranteed. It remained the final element to be hashed out.

It only made sense to be cautious, Charles explained. "It was all brand-new. No one else was attempting these straight-to-the-NBA-from-high-school shoe deals back then."

They were breaking ground about how American professional basketball related to the amateur game. Their efforts with Felipe Lopez had been sort of a trial run. Now, Bryant presented a hard target.

"We also knew there had to be side money for Joe," Charles recalled. "Without a doubt. That was the deal. Joe needed a job. That's why he coached at La Salle."

Vaccaro knew that if La Salle named Joe head coach, the Adidas deal was off. "Kobe wouldn't have gone pro," he said. "Joe told me that. He said that's the only thing. Now, I don't know if Kobe would have gone along, but that was Joe's plan."

"There was a lot of hope locally that Kobe would go to La Salle," Gregg Downer recalled.

Yet that spring, Joe Bryant was rapidly burning his bridges at his alma mater. The school then finally announced that Speedy Morris would keep his job. "The day Speedy Morris got the extension, everything changed," recalled Vontez Simpson, who was talking over the situation with Joe. "Joe was out of there."

The Philadelphia papers would later report that Jellybean had simply ceased going to work and would send one of his daughters to the school to pick up his paycheck. If Joe had retained any long-term goals of coaching in college, he had destroyed his opportunity, some of his friends thought. Morris would long remain bitter over how the situation was handled. The botched ending to Joe Bryant's tenure there meant that he couldn't exactly put the experience on his résumé and list Speedy Morris as a reference.

Perhaps what seemed oddest about Joe Bryant's actions was that a man who had found so much disappointment in the NBA would be such an advocate for having his son bypass college to begin work there immediately as a teen. Joe Bryant seemed perfectly willing to risk not just his son's future but his own as well.

"Joe knew he had a special talent on his hands," Charles explained.

Suddenly, there was even more pressure on the father to find revenue going forward. As the days rolled by, the circumstances made it even more imperative that any deal for Kobe include opportunity for the father as well.

"We knew that, and we told Joe that he would work for Adidas," Charles said. "So all of that played a part in what we were doing. There was no way Joe wanted to take that chance of his son going pro unless he had a guarantee."

The fact that Bryant needed cash flow was hardly unusual for former players. As Charles pointed out, former pros in just about all sports were having trouble holding on to the money they had made, especially players from the 1970s, when the pay was far below that of the overwhelming contracts that would be handed out later, after Michael Jordan made the sport more popular in the 1980s and 1990s and boosted the salary structure for stars into the tens of millions of dollars.

"Even Dr. J had to have a job," Charles said with a laugh. "When Joe played, how big could you really get?"

Clearly, however, Joe Bryant had correctly read certain key factors about the situation. One, the shoe industry and American pro basketball had evolved into a state where they were willing to pay millions on the speculation that a player might be great. The father also knew clearly that the sooner athletic talent could earn large amounts of money, the better. Professional athletic careers were far shorter than other careers. Time was precious. That was a no-brainer, and demand was just beginning to drive the marketplace for talent. Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Chicago Bulls, had purchased the team for a few million in the early 1980s, then watched Jordan push the value of the franchise to beyond half a billion dollars in a few short years. In the wake of that, other men of wealth understandably wanted to capitalize on the money and fun that employing unique talent could bring them as owners of teams.

Beyond any of these circumstances, however, the largest factor in the equation that spring was Kobe's own will. He had little fear of pro basketball. It was the game he had grown up around in Italy, not college basketball. It was the game about which his father had talked incessantly. Bryant told himself he was ready to take a plunge that no guard had ever taken.

"There's no question," Sonny Vaccaro said, looking back in 2015. "He's the strongest-willed guy. He knew what he wanted from the start. He wanted to be better than all of them. Kevin Garnett wasn't sure about turning pro. He thought he had to because of his test scores. Jordan had played college ball. Kobe Bryant took the biggest step. Kobe had the biggest balls of all of them."

From the book Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant by Roland Lazenby. Copyright © 2016 by Roland Lazenby. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.