How Jerry West changed John Calipari's career

February, 24, 2010
2/24/10
11:45
AM ET
In his recent NBA book, Bill Simmons writes about the great what-ifs in NBA history and how a different scenario might have played out. What if the Pistons had passed on Darko (oof) and taken Carmelo Anthony instead (double oof)? Historical counterfactuals are never not fun. Unless you're the Pistons. Or John Calipari.

To what do I refer? The simple, now-evident question: What if Jerry West hadn't talked Calipari out of drafting Kobe Bryant?

It's true. According to Roland Lazenby's new West biography, Calipari wanted to take Kobe with the No. 8 pick in the 1996 NBA draft, and West, deeply fond of Bryant's potential, managed to talk him out of it:
First West had to take the huge gamble of trading veteran center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for their thirteenth pick in the draft. Then he learned that John Calipari, the coach of the New Jersey Nets, planned to take [Kobe] Bryant with the eighth pick before the Lakers could snare him at thirteen.

"Jerry wanted Kobe, so he basically called up and talked Cal out of drafting Kobe," explained Hal Wiseel, who was with the Nets at the time. West encouraged the Bryant family to talk to Calipari and explain that their son really wanted to play for the Lakers. “He knew if we didn’t take him at eight, he’d drop to Charlotte, and he could make the deal with Charlotte,” Wissel recalled. “Cal was young in the league and, hey, it’s Jerry West on the phone."

Triple oof. Of course, it took a couple of years for Kobe Bryant to become Kobe Bryant, so there's no guarantee Calipari would have saved his NBA livelihood merely by standing up to West and taking Bryant with that eighth pick. Still, by 1999 -- the end of Cal's Nets tenure -- Kobe was starting to look like an elite player, and had he been able to excel for the Nets in short order, it just might have prevented Calipari from eventually heading back to college basketball with his tail between his legs. Which, of course, would have kept Memphis from regaining its elite status, and which almost certainly would have kept Calipari from eventually landing at his current home, Kentucky.

So, Kentucky fans, if you haven't already, be thankful John Calipari wasn't an NBA heavyweight. Without that failure, your 26-1 record and national title-contending Cats might never have existed. (Oh, and Lakers fans? You should probably say your thank you's, too.)

(Hat tip: Rush The Court)

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