How Kobe almost landed in Philly

NBA-BRYANT
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.

When the 76ers were preparing for the 1995 draft, head coach and general manager John Lucas invited college stars to St. Joseph's University for private workouts, and there they found a skinny, young player against whom they were matched one-on-one.

"Is he on your team?" one player asked Lucas after his workout, which ended badly for the prospective draftee.

"No, son," Lucas said. "He's a junior in high school."

The pages that fall from the calendar form pathways that bend and twist as they flutter to the ground and land. Things are neither meant to be nor not meant to be. They are merely the result of the messy collision of time and place.

As Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia to play basketball on Tuesday night, apparently for the last time, he comes back as a 37-year-old at the end of a Hall of Fame career. He is in his 19th professional season and, with a tweak of time, all of those seasons could have been spent in a Sixers uniform.

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It is a career that contained seven appearances in the NBA Finals, five championships, two scoring titles, a Most Valuable Player award and 15 selections to the All-Star Game. Bryant became symbolic of the revival of the Los Angeles Lakers, carrying on the tradition of Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Just as easily, he could have been the player who picked up the banner for Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks.

Unfortunately, for that latter narrative, the calendar pages fell the wrong way. Lucas, who was prepared to take Bryant with the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft rather than Allen Iverson, was fired before he got the chance. The Sixers were sold in April and the new management under Pat Croce brought in another general manager and, ultimately, another coach.

Had Harold Katz waited another year to sell and stayed with Lucas, who had two seasons remaining on his contract, things would have fallen much differently.

John Lucas came home from a disappointing road trip in the spring of 1995 - the Sixers of that era rarely had any other kind - and his wife told him there was a high school player he needed to see. Their daughter, Tarvia, attended Lower Merion High School and that is where Debbie Lucas made her discovery.

She had purchased tickets for the District 1 semifinal game between Lower Merion and Coatesville at the Palestra, a game in which Bryant would be matched up against sophomore Richard "Rip" Hamilton of Coatesville.

In the cinder-block corridors of the Palestra before the game, Lucas saw Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, the former La Salle star and NBA forward against whom Lucas had played.

"What are you doing here?" Lucas said.

"My son plays for Lower Merion," Bryant said. "What are you doing here?"

"My wife wants me to see some kid named Kobe," Lucas said.

"That's my son," Bryant said.

Lucas saw what the rest of the basketball world was seeing, including all the college coaches who were forming a line to recruit Kobe. Lucas didn't recruit him, but after the high school season was over, he invited Bryant to some informal workouts with the Sixers.

"Back then, the rules were nowhere near what they are now," Lucas said. "When I was in Cleveland, I tried that with LeBron James and they suspended me two games."

Bryant began to work out with Lucas after the Sixers finished their regular practices and he found himself paired up individually against some of the players. Bryant went at it one day with Vernon Maxwell, almost 30 years old and a seven-year NBA veteran.

"They were playing to 10, and it got to 9-9 and it was so rough, I thought they were going to fight with each other," Lucas said. "I said to myself, 'I want somebody who's going to fight at 9-9.' "

Lucas used Bryant as the litmus test that summer for players he might take with the third pick in the 1995 draft. According to Lucas, Antonio McDyess, a 6-foot-9 power forward who was taken by the Clippers with the second pick, was the only one who beat Bryant, and that included Jerry Stackhouse, the eventual pick, and a number of others.

"I based my draft on that. Kobe played them all one-on-one," Lucas said. "That summer, he trained with the team and went through the entire program. He got up every morning and worked out with us at 6 a.m."

Back at Lower Merion for his senior season, Bryant and the Aces won the state championship and it was clear that Bryant would be heading straight into the NBA draft. It was a talented draft class that included Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdul-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen. Bryant, who wouldn't turn 18 until August, was projected to be taken near the middle of the round - except by John Lucas.

"There was no question in my mind, he was the best player," Lucas said. "He wasn't only the most skilled, but I never had anybody work at that level. I heard him tell kids something at a camp once, years later. He said, 'Some people want to be the gazelles that are able to run alongside the lions. And there's nothing wrong with that. But I never wanted to be a gazelle.' "

Bryant became a lion in Los Angeles instead. It could have been here. Time and place didn't match up, though. It just missed.

"I think Philadelphia has always had a love-hate relationship with Kobe," Lucas said. "But he would have been up there on Mount Rushmore in Philly, with Hal Greer and Wilt and Doc. He should be up there."

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports