Kobe Bryant’s Hall of Fame career began with about an approximately 8-inch writeup on page C4 of the July 14, 1996, Los Angeles Times. The day before, the 17-year-old rookie guard had made his Los Angeles Lakers debut against the Detroit Pistons at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, California. But coverage of the seminal event was bumped inside the next morning’s sports section, displaced by such hot mid-July stories as a profile of Olympian boxer Antonio Tarver, Tim Salmon’s check-swing double to lift the Angels over the Mariners, and a horse named Cigar.
“If any of us knew what Kobe was going to become,” says Ric Bucher, who covered the game for the San Jose Mercury News, “we would have paid a lot more attention to that summer league, obviously.”
As strange as it sounds now, anticipation for Bryant’s first game was modest, even locally. Intrigue had mounted in the weeks after the 1996 draft, as it became clear that the high school phenom was less a flyer and instead someone who vaunted Lakers GM Jerry West had tabbed for stardom. But Bryant was still more of a curio, the rare guard to make the leap straight to the pros from the prep ranks, yet a guard in a league largely dominated by big men nonetheless.
Besides, everyone in and around the Lakers organization had their attention elsewhere. As much as West wanted Bryant—and Bryant and his agent wanted Los Angeles—the draft-day trade with the Hornets also signaled that the Lakers were all in on pursuing Shaquille O’Neal in free agency, as they cleared Vlade Divac’s contract and opened up the starting center spot. But with a hole in the middle of the lineup, and free agents of the era prone to take their sweet time rather than cue up a first-person article on the printing press for July 1, West would have to white-knuckle his way through the ensuing days and weeks, setting up contingency plans and dumping as much salary as he could as he waited for O’Neal’s choice. The Lakers’ decision to not sign Pacers big man Dale Davis, one of those fallback options, was another story to make the front of the Times sports page over Bryant.
“I remember being at those summer league games, and it was a lot of being on the phone and talking to people at the arena, not about Kobe, but about Shaq,” says Scott Howard-Cooper, then a Lakers beat writer for the Times.
But anyone among the roughly 5,000 in attendance at the Pyramid, on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, for the Saturday matinee game would’ve witnessed the coming attractions of a player who would help shape the next two decades of the NBA.
There were first-game jitters. Bryant, wearing no. 32 and his head shaved bald, turned over the ball five times and was called for four traveling violations in just 26 minutes. “Just a lot of nervous energy,” he said afterward.
But he finished with 27 points—on 4-for-10 shooting from the field, and a whopping 18-for-20 from the free throw line—two rebounds, and no assists in a 123-113 loss to the Pistons.
“I wanted to come out, I wanted to do well, I wanted to show the crowd I can play,” Bryant said.
Details of the game read like a checklist of the traits that would come to define Bryant and his game. He flashed the ability to “break down defenders and get to the basket,” to “generate excitement,” to “create scoring opportunities from all over the court.” He also took an ample amount of shots, as Lakers summer league coach Larry Drew ran plays to feature the rookie from the first possession.
“I was like, ‘Damn, this high school kid is just shooting all the shots,’” Bucher says. “I mean, it was really the embryonic form of the Kobe that we would see later.”
There was even a Michael Jordan comparison. “I think the kid is a tremendous athlete,” then-Pistons assistant coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. “I don’t want to compare anybody to Jordan. But he’s Jordan-like in the way he makes spectacular plays, the way he can get his shot, the way he can handle the ball, and he has a great court temperament.”
Indeed, what those who saw the game remember most is Bryant’s unbridled confidence. “He started playing basketball in Italy, so I asked him what that was like. He was like, ‘I took all the shots.’ He goes, ‘You think I was going to pass to Guido?’” Bucher recalls with a laugh. “There was no difference between Long Beach and Italy in middle school. It was, ‘I’m going to take all the shots. I’m the best player here. There’s not even a question in my mind.’”
Though younger than everyone he played against, Bryant was familiar with the environment, having grown up with a father in the NBA and scrimmaged against Jerry Stackhouse and other 76ers players while still in high school. “He wasn’t in awe of the NBA as most people would be at that age,” says David Booth, who played for the Lakers that summer, and later, at training camp in Hawaii.
In 2008, the archivist LakersRule24 uploaded highlights of Bryant’s best performance of the summer—a 36-point explosion in a 107-100 win over the Phoenix Suns. Even in pixels, Bryant’s swagger is unmistakable.
A behind-the-back pass to a trailing teammate. A hand in the air at the outset of a possession to call for the ball from fellow rookie Derek Fisher. A two-handed putback dunk through a crowd of three defenders. There’s a fearlessness that only a young person could have, an energy that screams “No one can touch me” and “What do I do with my hands?” at the same time.
Booth remembers Bryant making all sorts of acrobatic moves that summer, some of which left him wondering whether the 17-year-old was making scoring harder than it needed to be. “He would jump up and twist, twist, twist, and try to reverse when he could’ve just laid it up on that side. Sometimes, he would fall to the ground,” says Booth, now an NBA VP of basketball operations. “I think he was trying to pattern himself after Michael Jordan a little bit. As his career went on, he was able to make those moves. But I could tell that he was just starting to try those out.”
Bryant finished summer league with averages of 25 points and 5.3 rebounds over four games. More importantly, he proved to anyone watching that he could hang in the pros.
“He acted like he belonged right from the start,” Bucher says. “I don’t remember him shooting particularly well, but you saw, from a physical standpoint and a consistency standpoint, that he was going to be able to play right away, as a high school player.”
In his down time, Bryant worked on translating his star power off the court. One minute, Bucher was watching Bryant stuff a jock strap into his backpack as his dad asked which socks were his. The next, Bryant was delivering bits to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Days after signing his rookie contract, he filmed a cameo on Arli$$, as a patron of the very summer league he had just participated in. Sometimes, outside of the team hotel, he would show off the rap skills that would soon lead to a verse on a Brian McKnight remix.
In the midst of it all, the Lakers finally landed Shaq. The $120 million agreement immediately vaulted the Lakers to another stratosphere, but more importantly, it spared West of any further agony. He compared the excitement he felt when O’Neal signed the deal at 2:15 in the morning in Atlanta, where the center was playing for Team USA at the Olympics, to the birth of his children. He was less favorable in his description of the free-agent process: “Very bothersome, very, very distasteful. It’s taken a horrible toll on me. A horrible toll.” Later, West told Howard-Cooper that if O’Neal hadn’t signed, he would’ve jumped out of his Atlanta hotel window. He was kidding. But Howard-Cooper confirmed years later just to be sure.
“That’s the kind of guy Jerry was, that you had to double-check to make sure he wouldn’t really have jumped out the window if Shaq didn’t come,” he says.
Within one week, the Lakers welcomed the arrival of the two stars that would lead them to a new era. Of course, Bryant would spend the next year proving to the full Lakers roster what he’d made clear in Long Beach. Throughout his rookie season, Bryant’s self-assurance would bump up against the realities of being the youngest player in the NBA. He came off the bench behind Eddie Jones, much to his chagrin. He lacked social polish in dealing with veteran teammates.
Booth remembers Bryant being guarded at first in summer league, though he says Bryant quickly warmed to him and Fisher. The trio would often go to Red Lobster together during training camp, where Bryant would order Shirley Temples. But in the Lakers’ first team meeting in Hawaii, new players had to get up in front of the room and introduce themselves. Booth says Bryant chose a direct approach: “He got up and said, ‘My name’s Kobe Bryant and no one’s gonna punk me.’
“He was overdoing it to show that they weren’t going to run him over because he was a teenager.”
Eventually, Shaq nicknamed him “Showboat.”
“One time, he said, ‘Coach, if you can get Shaq out of the post sometimes, I can take anybody one-on-one in his league,” then–Lakers head coach Del Harris says. “And I said, ‘Kobe, I believe that, but there’s two things. First, you can do that, but you can’t do it a high enough percentage of times for a big winning team like us. And second, I’m not moving Shaq out of there so that you can do that.’ I said, ‘Now, there’ll be a day, but it’s not now. And you just have to wait your time.’”
But that conviction eventually propelled Bryant to many accolades, and now, to the Hall of Fame. It also buoyed him during his biggest struggles. To cap his rookie season, Bryant memorably shot four airballs at the end of regulation and in overtime to clinch a series loss to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals. The media lambasted him for it, setting a record for school-related barbs in the process. Bucher, sympathizing with the then-18-year-old, offered up some words of encouragement one day outside the locker room.
“It was something like, ‘Hey, keep your head up,’ or whatever,” Bucher says.
“He looked at me, he kind of sneered. He was like, ‘I’d take every damn one of those shots again.’ There was no reluctance or remorse, or anything. It was like, ‘Fuck that. I would take every one of those shots again.’”