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Vlade Divac: Trading me for Kobe was a 'no-brainer'

The 1996 trade of Vlade Divac for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant might be the most lopsided deal in NBA history. AP Photos, Getty Images

Today, Vlade Divac operates on the business end of basketball, considering transactions, evaluating assets -- anything he can do to make his team better. So much of the job is about assessing worth. What is fair value? What is worth bringing in or giving up? These are day-to-day questions Divac faces as general manager of the Sacramento Kings.

But nearly 20 years ago, Divac sat on the other side of the table, as a 7-foot-1 center and reliable double-double threat who was simply an asset moved in exchange for another.

Some players are traded many times throughout their careers, but this deal marked the only one Divac was involved in during his 16-season NBA playing career. However, it became one of the most notable trades in league history because of the player Divac was traded for.

Kobe Bryant.

That deal sent the then-17-year-old Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets, who had drafted him out of high school with the 13th overall pick in 1996, to the Los Angeles Lakers. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, which has judged the trade in a rather harsh light.

It has often been labeled the most lopsided deal the league has ever seen, considering the player Bryant became.

Looking back, Divac views the swap in a different way, one that's a bit more favorable to him.

"It gives you a recognition of your assets, how much you're worth to the team," Divac told ESPN leading up to what is expected to be Bryant's final game in Sacramento on Thursday.

"If they trade you for a Kobe, that means that you're not bad," he said with a laugh. "Let's put it that way."

Back then, Divac was a prominent piece for the Lakers, who had drafted him with the 26th overall pick in 1989.

He was named to the 1990 all-rookie first team, and by 1993-94, he averaged 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, becoming the first Laker since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lead the team in both categories. A season later, Divac averaged 16 points, making him the 17th player in NBA history to improve his scoring in his first six seasons.

But leading to the 1996 NBA draft, the Lakers worked out Bryant, a 6-foot-6 guard from Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia, at the Forum in Inglewood. And Jerry West, then the Lakers' general manager, called it the best workout he'd ever seen.

West worked fast to orchestrate a draft-day deal to send Divac, 28 at the time, to the Hornets for Bryant.

"They didn't tell me what was going on," Divac said. "They actually just told me one day that they already made a deal. Personally, I didn't like it.

"My philosophy, playing basketball, [was] I played basketball for fun. Going somewhere to play just because somebody told me to go there, I didn't like it. So I was thinking about [retiring]."

At that point, Divac said he didn't know much about Bryant. He only knew of Bryant's father, Joe, who had also played in Europe.

"But when Jerry West makes a deal, you know something is happening," Divac said. "I felt so bad, but knowing Jerry West was involved, he knows what he's doing. I was sure that this kid is going to have a good career."

It's hard to say what could have happened had Divac retired. Would doing so have blocked Bryant from coming to the Lakers, thus dramatically altering history? Perhaps.

Regardless, Divac ultimately accepted the deal, and for good reason. The Lakers were determined to trade him one way or another to clear cap room so that they could offer more money to free-agent center Shaquille O'Neal. Not long after the deal commenced, the Lakers signed O'Neal, marking one of the most resurgent offseasons in NBA history. Bryant went on to win five Lakers championships, three of them alongside O'Neal.

In Charlotte, Divac was still effective, averaging 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds from 1996 to '98. In each of those two seasons, the Hornets won 50-plus games.

"Going to Charlotte and being there two years, I missed L.A., but it was good for me," Divac said.

In 1999, Divac signed as a free agent with the Kings, helping to ultimately build a powerful rivalry with the Lakers that resulted in some of the NBA's most memorable playoff battles, specifically in the 2002 Western Conference finals, which the Lakers won in seven games.

"It was epic," Divac said. "We were probably the two best teams in the league for those couple years playing against each other and pushing each other to the limits. I think it was a great opportunity for both teams. Obviously, we came up short, but it was fun playing against the Lakers and obviously Kobe. He was a big part of their success. They pushed us. I think we pushed them to the limits. It was wonderful to be part of it."

"I didn't like it in the beginning, but later on, if I was in Jerry West's shoes, I would do the same thing. I would trade myself for Kobe, no-brainer."

Vlade Divac

Does Divac have a favorite memory? Yes, although, he said, "It's not a 'favorite' one." It was Game 4 of those 2002 conference finals. The Kings led the series 2-1 at that point and held a 20-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But the Lakers rallied.

In the fourth, Divac made a free throw to give the Kings a 99-97 lead with 11.8 seconds left. Bryant drove to the basket, but Divac contested a short shot, and Bryant missed. O'Neal gathered the rebound and tried for a putback, but he missed, too.

"I tried to knock the ball down and kind of hope that time was going to expire," Divac said.

Instead, he tipped the ball back out, and it went straight into the hands of Lakers forward Robert Horry, who launched and buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key as time expired.

"Basically, I threw the pass to Robert Horry, and he hit the 3," Divac said. "That was obviously a tough, tough time for us."

Divac rejoined the Lakers for his final NBA season in 2004-05, teaming with the player with whom his career had long been intertwined.

"I knew he was very passionate about basketball, but seeing him every day in practices -- if you had a doubt or if you were wondering why he was so successful, being around him, you knew exactly why he's successful," Divac said. "He's 100 percent in every single practice, just the way he played, the things that he was doing for all his teammates to be the same way. That's something that makes everybody better on the floor.

"A lot of guys could learn a lot from him, the way he conducts himself with all the basketball things."

Divac said the two never brought up that fateful trade, either.

"Now, from this distance, I'm very happy that he went to L.A. and had the career that he had and became one of the greatest players," Divac said. "I have a lot of respect for him. I think he brought to the league something special. We're all thankful for the career he's had."

And now that he's in the business of considering transactions and evaluating assets, Divac has even more perspective about being involved in the trade that nearly 20 years ago made Bryant a Laker.

"I didn't like it in the beginning, but later on, if I was in Jerry West's shoes, I would do the same thing," Divac said with a laugh.

"I would trade myself for Kobe, no-brainer."