When Kobe Bryant declared himself for the ’96 NBA Draft, he was just a skinny, playful 17-year-old kid with nothing but his favorite basketball tucked under his arm. One legendary pre-draft workout later, Kobe was a lock to become the next big thing.
The story about Bryant’s iconic trial with the Lakers has been told and retold hundreds of times, and it’s best summed up by Jerry West, the Lakers GM at the time, who described it as the “greatest workout I’ve ever seen.” But one guy whose perspective of those 45 minutes inside the Inglewood YMCA we always wanted to hear was Michael Cooper — Kobe’s on-court opponent from that day. Here’s how he recalls it.
It was a great workout. I personally didn’t know a lot about Kobe, I just heard about him, and I was on the coaching staff at that time, so I was supposed to be out on the scores for our skills development and working players out.Michael Cooper, Lakers Nation
West asked Cooper, former defensive player of the year, to go up against Kobe and keep him from getting to his spots. Coop couldn’t match Bryant’s athleticism — he was 40 at the time, way past his physical prime — but those defensive instincts were still there. To West, that was supposed to put Kobe to test, forcing him to take the shots Cooper wanted him to take. But it ended up not being enough.
That was a uniqueness about Kobe; wherever he wanted to get on the floor, he was able to get there. Now whether he hit the shot or not is a different story, but he was able to get to his spots. 60-70% of the time, he was knocking the shot down. For a 17-year-old kid, that was something spectacular.Michael Cooper, Lakers Nation
“Don’t take it easy on this kid,” said West to Cooper before the workout. “Make him work as hard as you can.” And Coop did that. He had been retired for years at that point but still had a little left in his tank. That day, he gave Kobe his all, imposing the NBA level of physicality for those 45 minutes. But Bryant had no trouble matching it, even as a teenager.
From the physicality standpoint, I was banging on him and bumping on him, and he was able to hold his own and go through that. We went at each other for maybe 45 minutes; different positions on the floor, posting up on the wing, around the free-throw line, at the elbow, different things they wanted to see, pick and roll action, and it was an interesting workout.Michael Cooper, Lakers Nation
Once they were done, Jerry West was convinced. “He’s the best player in the draft,” he said to Jerry Buss, the team’s owner. “That’s the best workout I’ve ever seen.” West was so blown away by the kid; he would’ve taken him No.1. And Cooper felt the same way.
He still denies Kobe getting the best of him and wishes that workout took place 15 years earlier. But when it comes to recognizing his talent, Coop had no trouble admitting — a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant was something else.