When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are introduced Wednesday as Clippers, it promises to be a spectacle unlike any other for a franchise that had struggled since its arrival in Los Angeles 35 years ago to become an attractive destination for top players.
That all changed earlier this month in one league-shaking night.
On July 5, the Clippers secured a commitment from Leonard, the league’s most sought-after free agent after leading Toronto to its first NBA championship, and traded for George, who asked out of Oklahoma City after an MVP-caliber season in order to play alongside Leonard.
That two of the league’s biggest stars — both Southern California natives — gave the Clippers their stamp of approval led to recollections of what might have been 15 years earlier, when another top free agent came close to signing on.
“The deal was basically done,” said Ralph Lawler, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame broadcaster who retired in April after 40 seasons with the Clippers, recalling the summer of 2004. “Within the organization it was everywhere:
“Oh my god, we got Kobe Bryant.”
Though tempted by the Clippers’ pitch, Bryant ultimately re-signed with the Lakers and won two more NBA championships before retiring in 2016 after one of the most recognizable careers in league history.
For those who remember his free agency decision in 2004, Bryant’s near-union with the Clippers remains a fascinating, and agonizing, what-if moment in the history of the team and around the league.
It marked the second time the Clippers fumbled a chance to get Bryant.
Before the 1996 NBA draft, some people within the organization lobbied the team’s decision makers to use the seventh overall pick on the high school All-America from Pennsylvania, the son of former Clipper Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. The Clippers instead drafted Lorenzen Wright six picks before Charlotte took Bryant and quickly traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Bryant became a six-time All-Star and three-time league champion in his first eight seasons. In the same span, the Clippers produced one All-Star (not Wright) and zero winning seasons. Premium seats at Lakers home games were a status symbol. The Clippers, meanwhile, were a “tough draw,” said Lee Zeidman, the president of Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live.
But the stark differences between Staples Center tenants seemed to hardly matter as Bryant entered free agency in 2004. The Lakers were only a few weeks removed from a dispiriting loss in the NBA Finals that came amid public discord between Bryant, star center Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson and the Lakers had already agreed to part ways by the time free agency opened, and O’Neal had requested a trade. Bryant was less than two months from the scheduled start of a trial in Colorado on allegations of felony sexual assault.
Determined not to spoil a second chance at Bryant, the Clippers hoped to take advantage of the Lakers’ turmoil.
As free agency opened, then-general manager Elgin Baylor told reporters he was “prepared to do whatever is necessary to make this as easy a decision as possible for him. ... We think that we represent the perfect option for him.”
Soon Baylor, coach Mike Dunleavy, owner Donald Sterling and team president Andy Roeser met with Bryant at a luxury hotel in Newport Beach near Bryant’s home, Lawler said. The broadcaster, who after four decades with the Clippers considers himself something of an unofficial team historian, did not attend but said he learned details of what transpired through conversations with each of the Clippers officials who were present.
“They made their pitch to Kobe and it was a very strong one because it seemed apparent to everyone at that point that Kobe and Shaq just could no longer co-exist,” Lawler said. “Then it’s time for Kobe to excuse himself and go and Donald Sterling walks him to the door expressing concern. ‘Is this really going to happen?’
“Kobe turned to him and — this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people — he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’ So he walked out the door and [the Clippers] are all high-fiving each other thinking, ‘By God, we’ve done it.’
“If anybody denies any of that,” Lawler added, “they are of faulty memory or they just don’t want to acknowledge it because that is what happened in that meeting in that hotel room.”
A second Clippers employee also told The Times that Baylor directly told him Bryant had verbally committed. (That employee has since left the team and agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.) There was enough confidence within the team that preliminary discussions began about how to best welcome Bryant at a ceremony in Staples Center.
A representative from Bryant’s company did not respond to an email requesting an interview with Bryant, but the 20-year Laker has acknowledged being open to the Clippers’ pitch.
“I felt comfortable over there,” Bryant said during a 2004 news conference to announce his return to the Lakers. “I could see myself playing for the Clippers.”
In 2016, Bryant said the combination of the team’s young players, a high pick in a draft stocked with prospects he liked, and the desire of Clippers executives to turn around the fortunes of a perennial loser appealed to him.
“At no point in time did I get a real clear feel for what direction this was heading,” then-Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in 2004. Bryant paused before putting pen to paper on a deal with the Clippers worth more than $100 million over six years. He spoke with Jerry West, the former Lakers executive — and current Clippers consultant — who’d traded for Bryant in 1996. And, lastly, he called Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
Bryant initially couldn’t reach Buss by phone amid the owner’s European vacation, but when they ultimately connected the conversation resonated.
“At the end of the day,” Bryant said in 2016, “Jerry Buss trumped it all.”
The Lakers traded O’Neal to Miami on July 15. The following day, Bryant announced a seven-year, $136-million deal to return to the Lakers.
Said the former Clippers employee: “It was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ And then the carpet just being pulled out from under you when it didn’t.”
Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent who is now the Lakers’ general manager, declined to comment through a spokesperson. Kupchak, now Charlotte’s general manager and president of basketball operations, declined to comment through a Hornets spokesman. Dunleavy and Baylor did not respond to messages.
Zeidman doubted that Bryant signing with the Clippers would have shifted “the dynamics of those 16 [Lakers] banners that are hanging in Staples Center.” However, he added, “It clearly would have shifted, I believe, what would have transpired in Staples Center as it relates to who could have potentially been the dominant team back then if Kobe would have left.”
The Clippers eventually added stars through other means. They drafted future all-NBA players Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and traded for Chris Paul, who re-signed with the team as a free agent in 2013. Yet the team never succeeded in attracting the game’s biggest free agents away from other teams. LeBron James met with the Clippers in 2010 but never seriously entertained the thought of joining.
All the while, Bryant remained the big one that got away.
It took 15 more years for the Clippers to sign Leonard, the biggest prize in free agency, and add George, another of the league’s best all-around players.
The Clippers can breathe easy this time. The ink is dry on both contracts.