Jerry West didn’t need much time to make up his mind about Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is congratulated by Jerry West during a ceremony on Feb. 3, 2010, to honor Bryant as the Lakers' leading scorer.

Kobe Bryant is congratulated by Jerry West during a ceremony on Feb. 3, 2010, to honor Bryant as the Lakers’ leading scorer.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It has become a mythical tale, one that grows in importance whenever the talk turns to Kobe Bryant’s legendary workout for the Lakers in 1996 and exactly how long it took for Jerry West to know he was watching greatness on the court.

West, then the general manager of the Lakers, gathered his public relations staff of John Black and Raymond Ridder and headed over to Inglewood High to watch a 17-year-old from Lower Merion High work out for the second time.

Bryant went one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the retired Laker who had been named to NBA’s All-Defensive team eight times during the 1980s.


Here is where the Bryant-Cooper workout saga became urban lore. Just how long did West stay to watch that workout?

“It wasn’t two minutes, OK,” West said recently.

So how long was West there?

“It was probably 10 minutes,” he said.

That was enough time for West to determine the talents of a player, even a kid out of high school, and to prove that Bryant was the player he and the Lakers had to have.

“Michael and Kobe were playing one-on-one and it was not much of a contest,” West said. “It wasn’t much of a challenge for Kobe. I said, ‘To hell with this. I’ve seen enough.’”

Truth be told, this was not the same Cooper who was a star on five Lakers championships teams. Cooper, then 40, had last played with them in 1990. He played one more season in Italy before retiring and joining the Lakers’ staff in 1994 as an assistant under Coach Del Harris.

“Kobe was really great with the ball,” Harris explained. “He had moves. But Michael wasn’t in shape and that wasn’t the Michael that won the defensive player of the year.”


Bryant had been in a prior workout against other players the Lakers had brought in before the draft and that also made an impression on West.

“The one thing that you could see in all the drills was how competitive he was and how knowledgeable he was about the game,” West said. “The thing you could not ignore was his enormous skill level. He was clearly, I mean clearly, head and shoulders above the people that we had brought in — just completely head and shoulders.”

As overwhelmed as West was with Bryant, the Lakers still had plenty of work to do to land him.

The Lakers didn’t draft until 24th that year — they ultimately took Derek Fisher with the pick — and West was sure Bryant wouldn’t be around then.

Plus, West’s primary focus in 1996 was to pry All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal away from Orlando when the free-agency period opened.

That spring Bryant, the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was generating plenty of buzz going into the draft.

His agent at the time, Arn Tellem, began letting teams know that Bryant’s preference was to play with the Lakers. Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam Bryant, were also sending signals that their son didn’t want to play close to his home in the Philadelphia area.

John Calipari was then head coach of the New Jersey Nets and he had an interest in picking Bryant with the team’s eighth overall pick in the draft.

But once he got wind of the desires of Bryant and his camp, Calipari used his selection to take Villanova shooting guard Kerry Kittles.

Still, the Lakers weren’t out of the woods just yet, knowing that other teams were interested in Bryant. After Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller and Vitaly Potapenko were selected.

But the shrewd West had worked out a pre-draft deal with Charlotte, which had the 13th pick in the draft, and the Hornets took Bryant. The Lakers agreed to send veteran center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the draft rights to the 6-foot-6 high school guard.

“I remember after we made the trade, I told [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss, ‘I think we got the best player in the draft,’” West said. “I said, ‘He’s young, but he’s the most talented player that I’ve seen in a long time.’ And that’s how it came about.”

West had gotten Bryant, and then he went to work on getting O’Neal. In mid-July, West signed O’Neal to a seven-year, $120-million deal.

“Our desire to acquire Shaquille O’Neal was the bigger picture at that time,” West said. “To me, that was so important to our franchise to have him there, not only as a player, but as someone who people are going to come watch play. That was our big emphasis that summer. Jerry Buss and I had talked about it. Shaq was going to make us a contender immediately.”

Bryant and O’Neal won three NBA championships together. Bryant then won two more rings with Pau Gasol, Fisher and Lamar Odom.

His career is over now, Bryant’s 20 years with the Lakers coming to an end April 13.

There are many stories about Bryant’s career, but perhaps none more critical than his one-on-one workout in front of West.

“At that point and time, it wasn’t in vogue to take high school players,” West recalled. “It just wasn’t. The one thing he had was the effervescence about himself that was not like people that had gone to school a lot longer, people with more experience, people more mature.

“With him, he was like a kid. ‘I’ve got my toy,’ and the toy department was the basketball. He was happy, smiling, very sure of himself even at a young age that he was going to be capable of accepting this next challenge,” West said.

“Kobe and Michael just were shooting around and when they started playing, I said, ‘I’ve seen enough,’ which in fact was the truth. And, yes, it was 10 minutes.”

Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter: @BA_Turner


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