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Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak recalls Kobe Bryant draft-day Lakers deal almost never happened

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Charlotte Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak recalls the day Kobe Bryant was drafted, as he was sitting on the other side of the glass, hoping to acquire him as the assistant to then-general manager Jerry West.

The Los Angeles Lakers had been enamored with Kobe from the moment they invited him to work out for the team, soon working out a deal with the Hornets to potentially acquire him with the 13th overall pick. The Lakers would trade their center Vlade Divac, who threatened to retire if he was indeed traded away.

“There was such excitement around the pick that Charlotte actually didn’t want to go through with the deal,” Kupchak recalled, according to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. “There was a time there, whether it was Vlade (Divac threatening to retire) or just pressure on the franchise, where the deal was actually in jeopardy.”

Divac was already flexing his muscle to bombard this potential trade, which was already in place before the draft. Plus the uncertainty of Bryant getting scooped up by another team that drafted earlier on the board was also a possibility.

“There was a strong possibility then that it might not happen,” Kupchak said. “I think we always felt that we’d get the deal done. Certainly, history would have been a lot different, at least from a Lakers’ point-of-view. Kobe would have been great no matter where he was.”

The Lakers had done everything possible to ensure Bryant would be available to them at No. 13, but even then the skepticism kicked in. Then-general manager Jerry West had limited other teams’ access to him during draft workouts and many NBA teams saw him as a high school product which they’ve only seen footage of.

That made some of the other teams tentative in taking the chance, ensuring the Hornets would be able to pick him at No. 13 and soon going through with the trade that would eventually make him a 20-year legend with the purple and gold.