Lakers

Jerry West reflects on his relationship with Kobe Bryant

It started at Inglewood High. Did it ever.

Kobe Bryant arrived for his Lakers pre-draft workout in 1996 and was matched up against Michael Cooper, who had been six years removed from the NBA but might have been a decent test for a 17-year-old with no college experience.

Lakers executives Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak were there, along with a few other team officials.

The workout lasted about 15 minutes. Maybe 20.

That's when West turned to one of the Lakers employees and said, "Let's get out of here."

As in, leave?

"He's better than anyone we have on our team right now. Time to make a trade," West said.

Thursday marked another time for reflection on the Bryant goodbye tour — his last game at Golden State, where West has been a consultant since 2011.

It was easy to remember their relationship. West was a father figure, continually hosting Bryant at his Bel-Air home while West's wife made an Italian dinner.

"We didn't give him any wine of course," West said.

The workout is where it all began, and West wanted to clarify something about it while meeting with reporters Thursday.

"Everyone talked about a legendary workout. That's you [media] people that created 'legendary' because I've seen an awful lot of good workouts," West said. "But for someone that age, it was remarkable — the skill, the love that he had for the game and the desire to excel. At 17 years old, I'd never seen anyone with the skill level that he had."

Bryant wanted to prove he wasn't a typical teenager, recalling Thursday the need to portray an air of, "You don't have to give me a bib, a pacifier. You don't have to have somebody tuck me in. I'm ready to go."

The Lakers didn't have a pick until No. 24 that year, so West started calling teams and soon found a willing trade partner in Charlotte. The Hornets gladly accepted center Vlade Divac in exchange for Bryant, whom they drafted 13th overall.

West also revealed that Bryant's agent back then, Arn Tellem, told the New Jersey Nets that Bryant wouldn't play for them because it was too close to home. The Nets took Kerry Kittles with the eighth pick. Bryant's parents also got involved, West said, reasserting the notion that Bryant didn't want to play anywhere near Philadelphia.

"To say that we did this on our own would be a fiction," West said.

West was experienced at building a winner, an immense part of four championships as a Lakers executive from 1982 to 2000. He was never far from Bryant's mind after leaving, particularly when the Lakers struggled after Shaquille O'Neal was sent to Miami in 2004.

Right before Bryant demanded to be traded in 2007, the unhappy superstar said he wanted the Lakers to rehire West.

It would have been a little awkward for Kupchak, who had been West's protege and won championships in 2001 and 2002 without him. The timing would have worked with West nearing the end of a five-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies.

"I don't want to get into people believing me to be bashing anybody. Mitch is a great guy," Bryant said at the time. "All I can go by is what has happened with this team the last two years, and I know Jerry West is a guy who's great at what he does. Just having him back in the nucleus will help."

It never happened. Bryant eventually calmed down, Pau Gasol was acquired in February 2008 and two more championships headed the Lakers' way.

West was like a happy parent Thursday. He hadn't worked with Bryant in 15 1/2 years. It didn't matter.

"Millions of people love this guy," West said. "And millions of people will miss what he was able to accomplish in his career."

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 15, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "It began with a stellar workout - Former Lakers player and executive Jerry West reflects on acquiring Kobe Bryant 20 years ago." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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