In the spring of 1996, fewer than a dozen Clippers officials watched as coach Bill Fitch ran a 17-year-old guard from Philadelphia through a solo predraft workout in Los Angeles.
On the day’s agenda was the same drill Fitch had used in hundreds of workouts during his previous 26 years evaluating NBA prospects. Fitch called it “baskets per minute,” and it was a souped-up version of the classic Mikan drill. Players alternated shooting on the left and right sides of the basket, using both hands, making as many baskets as possible in 60 seconds.
Larry Bird was one of the best Fitch had ever tested. Nothing, however, topped what Fitch would witness that spring day inside the Sports Arena from Kobe Bryant.
“Kobe, at 17 years old, still holds the record for it,” Fitch said in a phone interview.
Instead of laying the ball up with each hand, Bryant dunked, nonstop, as assistants Barry Hecker and Jim Brewer glanced at one another.
“He dunked it with his left hand, he dunked it with his right hand, it was like bang-bang-bang-bang-bang — it was like a pogo stick,” Hecker said. “It was so quick and so explosive and I just remember that look of Jim and I. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is wild.’ You don’t often see something like that.”
The memory was so powerful it was the first that both Fitch, 87, and Hecker, 72, thought of Sunday upon learning that the 41-year-old Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. The workout was their first glimpse of a 6-foot-6 talent who would become one the faces of basketball for the next 20 seasons.
“Tragic,” Hecker said. “None of it makes any sense.”
Other predraft workouts of Bryant have become the stuff of lore. One, lasting mere minutes, persuaded then-Lakers general manager Jerry West to trade for the guard, who was chosen 13th overall by Charlotte. It became the origin story of his 20-year career with the Lakers that led to five championships.
Bryant’s Clippers workout is not nearly as famous, largely because it did not lead to a storied career. With the seventh pick in the draft, the Clippers selected the older, taller Lorenzen Wright — a selection Fitch and Hecker say they do not regret. Each felt the Clippers’ organization would not have been conducive to success for a teenager.
In a “long talk” with Bryant after the workout, Fitch said he shared with Bryant how impressed he was by what he’d seen, and also concerns about the organization as it was run by former owner Donald Sterling.
“He knew where we were coming from,” Fitch said. “He knew the Clippers were in need of a lot of help and were in dire need of a lot of things, including ownership. We had a lot of long talks about what he should do and where he should go and I said, ‘I can take you and you can play 48 minutes a game with anybody I got here, but it’s not going to be the career I want for you.’
“He benefited from us not taking him and money-wise he probably got more getting drafted where he did than he would have gotten out of Donald Sterling. I didn’t want him to have to go through all the things we were going through there.”
Fitch, who coached the Clippers from 1994-98 and was a 2019 inductee into the Hall of Fame, said Bryant later “thanked me a few times for not putting him in the mess that we could have put him in with the Clippers.”
The Clippers’ backcourt was deep, Hecker said, adding that the team had targeted adding size in the draft. Still, Bryant left an impression.
“It’s like seeing a beautiful woman, it’s like, ‘Holy mackerel, this guy,’ ” said Hecker, who in more than a decade with the team also served as the Clippers’ director of scouting and director of player personnel. “He had the size and had the confidence, even then. He was special, you could tell. But again, that was a scary place and especially for a young player. There wasn’t anybody on our team to mentor him.”
The Clippers “probably did him a favor,” Hecker said, adding that at the time the team was “just such a screwed-up organization. He needed stability and, obviously, the Lakers with Jerry there was going to give it to him.”
The Clippers missed another chance to add Bryant in 2004, when he was a free agent. Though Bryant had won three championships with the Lakers, he heard pitches from Clippers executives who told Bryant the organization was ready to turn around its reputation as a perennial loser. Executives left a meeting at a Newport Beach hotel elated, believing Bryant had committed verbally.
Before Bryant made the decision official, he called West, who remained a confidante despite working as the general manager in Memphis.
“He was going to come and sign with the Clippers,” West said Tuesday, during a televised remembrance of Bryant on TNT. West has worked with the Clippers as a consultant since 2017. “And I told him, ‘Kobe, under no circumstances can you do this.’ And he was mad at everyone at the Lakers. The owner, everyone else. I said, ‘Kobe you can’t go play with the Clippers. You can’t play for that owner [Sterling], period.’ ”
From friends in Philadelphia, Fitch had learned that Bryant was more than a scoring star at Lower Merion High, and during the workout he learned their information was correct.
“Kobe worked as hard in practice as he did in Game 7,” Fitch said. “I look at his work ethic, it was very important. Most guys, if they do it that easy or are getting a lot of praise and are 17 years old, getting drafted in the first round in the NBA, they might get a little lazy. But he worked at his game hard.”
Hard is also how Fitch described the days since Bryant’s death.
“He was a giver,” Fitch said. “And if he’s looking down now, God bless you, Kobe. God bless you.”
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