By ’04, Kobe Bryant has had enough. His relationship with Shaquille O’Neal was damaged beyond repair, and Bryant wanted out. His preferred destination – the Lakers‘ next-door neighbors LA Clippers. We all know how that story ended. Between him and O’Neal, the Lakers went with the younger superstar, trading Diesel to the Miami Heat on July 14, 2004. The very next day, Kobe re-signed with the Purple and Gold.
But what if he didn’t? What if the Lakers went with Shaq instead? Would Kobe really have joined the Clippers? According to Jeanie Buss, he probably would.
I never had that conversation with Kobe, but there was a game where he wore Clippers colors, like very subtle. I’m like, ‘I can see he loves challenges, and that would’ve been a huge thing.’ So I do think that was something that was very possible.Jeanie Buss, All The Smoke
This isn’t the first time the topic of Bryant joining the Clippers was brought up. Jerry West, who persuaded the Lakers into trading for Kobe in the ’96 Draft, talked about it right after the tragedy.
I remember when he was going to leave the Lakers, and I’ve never really mentioned this to anyone; he was going to come and sign with the Clippers, who I’m now involved with as a consultant. And I told him, ‘Kobe, under no circumstances can you do this.’Jerry West, NBA on TNT
At that time, Kobe was mad at the Lakers, the owner, and everyone else involved with the organization. Legendary broadcaster Ralph Lawler even said Bryant had verbally committed to joining the Clippers before signing a new deal with the Purple and Gold.
Then it’s time for Kobe to excuse himself and go, and Donald Sterling walks him to the door expressing concern. ‘Is this really going to happen?‘ Kobe turned to him, and—this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people—he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.‘ So he walked out the door, and [the Clippers] are all high-fiving each other thinking, ‘By God, we’ve done it.’Ralph Lawler, LA Times
It wasn’t until Kobe talked about it with West – the Grizzlies GM at that time – that he decided against it. “I said, ‘Kobe, you can’t go play with the Clippers,'” The Logo said to the TNT crew. “You can’t play for that owner, period.” Years later, after Adam Silver announced Donald Sterling had been banned from the league for life after using racist remarks, it became clear where West was coming from.
Bryant’s decision to stay with the Lakers ultimately paid off. They won two more championships, and Kobe even took home a regular-season MVP. Meanwhile, the Clippers are yet to win the organization’s first NBA title. Had Black Mamba joined them in ’04, that probably wouldn’t have been the case anymore.