Kobe or not Kobe? Cal made fateful call

NEWARK, N.J. -- Back in New Jersey, home to one of his many hustles, Kentucky coach John Calipari could not claim he had never been conned, scammed or beaten in the recruiting shell game he is supposed to master.

In fact, as the newly appointed savior of the Nets, Calipari was tricked out of landing the most gifted prospect he ever courted, played for a fool by a teenager and the representatives banking on the kid's hang time, jump shot and smile.

"John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the [1996] draft," John Nash, Calipari's general manager at the time, said Thursday by phone. "And he got faked out."

"Fast Eddie Felson" wasn't so fast back then, not after he left UMass in a UMess to make a $15 million score with the Nets, who were desperate to hire someone, anyone, after Rick Pitino rejected an offer worth twice as much.

Calipari would start building his NBA program with the eighth pick in a draft held in his own Meadowlands arena, a pick so fateful that it would lead the coach here, to the NCAA regional in Newark, wearing the colors of the Wildcats and talking in the bowels of the Prudential Center about a choice made 15 years ago and 11 miles away that dramatically altered his life, not to mention NBA history.

"Everybody knows I was talked out of that," Calipari said of his desire to select Bryant, and not the Villanova guard he did draft, Kerry Kittles.

"But let me say this," Calipari continued outside of his locker room, selling something nearly impossible to buy, "the opportunity to coach Kerry Kittles I wouldn't give up for anything. I love Kerry Kittles, and I said at the time he'll be better than Kobe these first couple of years, but in five years Kobe's going to be off the charts."

Off the charts? If he wins another pair of championships with the Lakers, passing Michael Jordan's six with the Bulls, Bryant will only barrel his way into the conversation as the greatest basketball player of all time.

And Calipari had him. He had Kobe Bryant out of Lower Merion High School as much as he had John Wall last season and as much as he'll have Michael Gilchrist next season.

Calipari worked out Bryant three times at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and three times came away mesmerized. "If you watched the workouts," Calipari said, "you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he's ridiculous."

Or both. Nobody knew it at the time, but Bryant and his agent and sneaker benefactor were about to fool Calipari in a staggering way.

The night before the draft, Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant's parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J. Kobe's mother and father were thrilled that their son would be playing within commuting distance of their suburban Philly home.

Joe -- who had played in the NBA and in Italy, where Kobe spent part of his youth -- told the Nets' executives he believed Kobe would develop into a starter as a rookie and into an All-Star during his second season. "As we left that dinner," Nash recalled, "Cal told me, 'Wow, Joe really has unrealistic goals for Kobe.' As it turned out, Joe's goals were pretty realistic."

Over lunch on draft day, Calipari and Nash told one of the Nets' seven owners, Joe Taub, that Bryant would be a Net in eight hours. Taub preferred John Wallace, the Syracuse senior, and worried that a high school kid might ultimately leave for a bigger market and a better team in free agency.

Only Bryant wasn't about to wait years for his liberation. He called Calipari after the coach's lunch with Taub, and Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, called Nash. Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.

Nash met with a panicked Calipari and tried to calm the coach. The GM made some phone calls and figured out that the Lakers' Jerry West had reached an agreement with Charlotte, holding the 13th pick, to trade Vlade Divac for Bryant; West was confident that Kobe would make it to No. 13 if the Nets passed at No. 8.

Sneaker maven Sonny Vaccaro would later admit he worked with his good friend, Tellem, to maneuver Bryant to a franchise that would maximize his marketing charms. But Nash thought the Nets should hold firm and call Bryant's bluff.

"Kobe wasn't going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go," Nash said. "But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference."

Nash said Falk leaned hard on Calipari to take his client. As coach and executive VP of basketball operations, Calipari had final say. About 90 minutes before the draft, he told his owners he would select Kittles at No. 8.

Nash lobbied his coach one last time. From his time running the Sixers, Nash had extensive connections in the Philly area, and he was hearing and seeing the same things West was hearing and seeing -- Bryant might be a once-in-a-generation player.

"John, you've got a five-year deal," Nash told Calipari. "If you miss on this kid, you'll get a couple of more chances."

Calipari wouldn't take the risk of having his first draft blow up on him in his own building. He took Kittles, Charlotte took Bryant, the Lakers took the gamble and Nash took some good-natured ribbing from a league executive named Rod Thorn.

"As I was heading to the parking lot after that draft," Nash said, "Rod comes up and says, 'Hey, you guys blew it when you didn't take Kobe Bryant.' Rod didn't know Kobe Bryant from a Kobe steak, but he was very close with Jerry West."

All these years later, Bryant is a five-time champ with the Lakers, Nash is a pro personnel scout with the Sixers, and Calipari is the wildly successful and controversial coach of Kentucky, the underdog in Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup with top-seeded Ohio State.

Calipari was 3-17 when fired by the Nets in his third season, fired and forced to make a humiliating perp walk from Miami Arena to a waiting Cadillac.

"It's a humbling thing," Calipari said, "when you walk in and ... they say, 'We don't want you here. Just beat it. You're out. You can't do this job.'"

While in Newark, Calipari said, he might take a nostalgic drive with his wife to their old Franklin Lakes, N.J., home. He maintained he has no desire to return to the NBA, not when he's running a college program as storied and as relevant as Kentucky's.

Calipari wants to keep riding his one-and-done wave of bluegrass blue-chippers to another Final Four, and to have this trip stand for eternity. (His previous trips with UMass and Memphis went poof in the night after the NCAA uncovered violations never directly tied to the coach.)

But the game's leading recruiter and most polarizing salesman can't escape the one letter of intent he couldn't get signed.

"Would the kid have stayed in New Jersey?" Calipari asked of Bryant. "How about he says, 'I'm not staying here. ... I'm going to get traded in a year or two.' All that kind of stuff could have happened."

Or Bryant would have been perfectly happy as a New Jersey Net, a claim he first made a year after the draft.

"For all of John's bravado," Nash said, "I was surprised he shifted off Kobe. In the end, John got scammed."

It happens to the best of them.