Kobe Bryant doesn’t admit to making mistakes or having regrets. It’s just not in his DNA. However, the 18-time All-Star often talks wistfully about how close he came to attending Duke University to play for Coach K. “Every time I turn on the TV and see Cameron Indoor Stadium, see everybody in Krzyzewskiville and see the Crazies jumping up and down with the intensity and the building almost shaking, I wonder what it would have been like to play there with Corey [Maggette] and Elton [Brand] and all those guys,” he told GoDuke.com several years ago.
What if Kobe actually had gone to college? How many NCAA championships would he have won? How would his decision have impacted the 1996 draft? Would the Lakers have rattled off three championships at the turn of the century without him? Who would Shaq have dissed in his rap songs? We’ll answer those questions and more in our latest instalment of Revisionist History. You can revisit our first instalment with LeBron James here.
Over/under on how many championships Kobe would have won at Duke: 1
The Backdrop: The Duke Blue Devils were already a national powerhouse in the 1990s. Led by Mike Krzyzewski, the program won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992 and won a staggering 76% of their games during the decade. Durham was also a breeding ground for the NBA’s worst teams, and produced top-flight talent like Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, and Corey Maggette. (Side note: it pains me to include Laettner on the list, but all sportswriters are legally obligated to drop his name when discussing Duke Basketball.)
The Alternate Timeline: Kobe comes close to entering the NBA directly from high school before a last-minute change of heart leads to him signing a letter of intent with Duke. The NBA’s loss is the NCAA’s gain as the long-limbed kid from the Philadelphia burbs takes college hoops by storm during the 1996-97 season. Kobe scores 25 points or more in his first five games and goes off for a cool 40 against Vince Carter and the Tar Heels on January 29th. Veteran broadcaster Billy Packer calls it the “game of the year,” and SportsCenter leads off that night’s show with not one, but two clips of Kobe posterizing Antawn Jamison. He finishes the season as the nation’s leading scorer and is named a consensus All-American and the ACC Rookie of the Year.
Kobe’s coming out party continues during March Madness when he puts the Blue Devils on his back and takes them to the championship game against Arizona. And that’s where the wheels come off. The Wildcats manage to neutralize the freshman phenom by playing a box-and-one for 40 minutes. Kobe refuses to share the ball with Trajan Langdon and Jeff Capel, even when triple-teamed, and shoots Duke out of the game. He makes just five of his record-setting 33 shots and openly weeps on the bench as the confetti rains down on Arizona.
Many expect Kobe will declare for the NBA draft, but he surprises even those closest to him by deciding to come back for his sophomore season. Citing unfinished business, he returns to the team with a renewed focus and a willingness (however tentative) to trust his teammates. It helps, of course, that his surrounding cast is far better than the year before. Elton Brand and Shane Battier represent significant upgrades, and Steve Wojciechowski emerges as a key defensive cog. The team finishes the season 34-2 and Kobe becomes the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and assists. He continues his hot streak throughout March and leads Duke to an 86-71 win over Nazr Mohammed and Kentucky in the championship game. Critics applaud him for his unselfish play and Krzyzewski calls him the greatest college player he’s ever coached.
Kobe considers sticking around for one more season to play with incoming freshman Corey Maggette, but ultimately decides to jump to the NBA to play against the best in the world and finally get paid for his efforts.
Odds Kobe would have been selected first in the 1998 NBA Draft: 1/2
The Backdrop: The 1998 draft was more loaded than Ted Kennedy on New Year’s Eve. The Clippers could have set themselves up for years of success by selecting Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, or Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, they picked Michael Olowokandi, a seven-foot stiff who averaged 8.3 points over an eight-year career. Suffice it to say, his number is not presently hanging from the rafters of the Staples Center.
The Alternate Timeline: The Clippers toy with the idea of selecting Pacific senior Michael Olowokandi and Arizona sophomore Mike Bibby, but for once they get something right by picking Kobe first overall. It proves to be a savvy decision as he slides into the starting line-up and leads the team in scoring, assists, and steals during a stellar Rookie of the Year season. Los Angeles is still awful, but Kobe gives them hope, and they slowly begin building through the draft. Lamar Odom and Derek Anderson join the team in 1999, and Corey Maggette and Darius Miles come on board the following year.
The Clippers now have the league’s best young nucleus, and in 2001 they finish with a better record than the Lakers for the first time in franchise history. The showdowns between Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal become must-see TV, although ultimately both of their teams fizzle out in the playoffs. In fairness, no one can match up with the Sacramento Kings, who win three consecutive titles from 2000-02 behind future first-ballot Hall of Famer Chris Webber.
Odds Kobe would have won an NBA title with the Clippers: 25/1
The Backdrop: The Clippers have been around in one form or another since 1970 and have only qualified for the playoffs 13 times in all those years. Kobe was an exceptional player in his prime, but was he really good enough to lead one of the NBA’s most hapless franchises to a championship?
The Alternate Timeline: Kobe leads the league in scoring three times between 2002 and 2006 and wins a pair of All-Star game MVPs during that stretch, but the shiny hardware can’t conceal the fact that the Clippers are just treading water in the loaded West. Tired of being bounced in the second round of the playoffs, Bryant demands a trade to the up-and-coming Bulls during the summer of 2007.
The Clippers reluctantly agree, and ship Kobe out of town for rising star Luol Deng and a pair of first-round draft picks. L.A. is lambasted in the press for getting pennies on the dollar, but they get the last laugh when they convert their draft picks into two-time NCAA champion Joakim Noah and future MVP Derrick Rose. The transactions shift the balance of power in the league and the Clippers win their first championship in 2009.
Kobe, meanwhile, is left trying to make lemonade from lemons. He and teammate Ben Gordon butt heads from day one and he famously steals the ball from the UConn product during the closing moments of a game against the Sixers in 2008. Kobe goes on to play four more seasons, but the closest he makes it to the finals is in 2013 when newly-minted NBA champ Smush Parker wears his #8 jersey during a post-game interview. Kobe’s inability to win it all becomes a running gag on Inside the NBA, and sports writers across the U.S. dismiss him as selfish chucker without a ring.