LOS ANGELES -- Imagine if Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson were with the New Jersey Nets instead of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sounds implausible, but both things nearly happened.
If Jackson had made a different decision in the summer of 1999, and if Bryant hadn't changed his mind the day of the 1996 draft, both could be with the Nets today. Details of that story, along with one other interesting tidbit, were discussed Tuesday on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. First, the extra tidbit: Shaq's family, when not rooting for the Lakers, cheers for the Nets.
The two-time defending champions couldn't have been any more praiseworthy or diplomatic Tuesday in discussing their opponent from the Eastern Conference.
O'Neal said in his mind, Jason Kidd was the MVP.
Bryant talked about Nets coach Byron Scott being his mentor when they were teammates in Bryant's rookie season of 1996-97.
Jackson lauded the Nets organization for turning the team from a perennial loser into a championship contender overnight.
It's a little strange, but Shaq, Kobe and Phil each have a history with the Nets.
Let's start with Jackson, who not only played two seasons for New Jersey but also began his coaching career there as an assistant to Kevin Loughery from 1979-81. After retiring as coach of the Chicago Bulls following his sixth championship in eight years, Jackson became interested in the Nets again in the summer of 1999 when the team made him a lucrative offer to become head coach.
Jackson had two meetings with the Nets, and his agent, Todd Musburger, recalled having at least four meetings and a series of telephone calls over a six-week period before Jackson decided to turn down the job.
The story of Bryant's involvement with the Nets is equally interesting and more intriguing.
''He was our pick. We had dinner with his parents the night before the draft and we told them he was our choice,'' recalled John Nash, who was New Jersey's general manager at the time.
The afternoon of the draft, Nash received two phone calls -- one from Bryant and one from his agent, Arn Tellem.
''They said Kobe had had a tremendous change of heart,'' Nash said. ''Kobe suggested he wouldn't play in New Jersey.''
Within a couple of hours, Nash learned that the Hornets and Lakers had worked out a deal to sent Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to Bryant.
Lakers president Jerry West had already offered Divac to the Nets for the eighth pick, but New Jersey turned it down.
As Nash recalls, he, then-coach John Calipari and then-owner Joseph Taub discussed what to do. Nash wanted to call Bryant's bluff and take him anyway; Calipari wanted to take Kerry Kittles (agent David Falk was pleading with the club to select Kittles, just as Tellem was begging them not to draft Bryant), while Taub wanted to take John Wallace to fill a need at small forward.
Calipari had final say, and the Nets decided to pick Kittles with the No. 8 pick.
''Arn Tellem had something to do with that. I don't know how much leverage a 17-year old kid can have,'' Bryant said. ''At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere -- Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn't matter.''
Dallas chose Samaki Walker ninth, Indiana took Erick Dampier 10th, Golden State selected Todd Fuller 11th, and Cleveland picked Vitaly Potapenko 12th.
Tellem said he would not let Bryant hold workouts for any of the teams picking between New Jersey and Charlotte, which helps explain why they all passed on him.
''I was crossing my fingers because there was a lot of teams in between there,'' Bryant said.
Charlotte selected Bryant with the 13th pick and traded him to the Lakers.
The rest, as they say (again), is history.
But if history had been just a little different, maybe it would have been the Nets going for their third straight title instead of the Lakers. Shaq's family would have loved it.
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