When Kobe Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016, he closed the book on an NBA career that lasted exactly two decades and saw him play for just one team – the Los Angeles Lakers. However, there was reportedly one point in his career when he nearly signed a free-agent contract with the Lakers’ inter-city rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Ralph Lawler – who retired in April after spending 40 seasons broadcasting games for the Clippers – recalled the events of the summer of 2004, when the team was apparently very close to landing Bryant in free agency. According to Lawler, the deal that would have sent Bryant to the Clippers was “basically done,” as word quickly spread across the organization about how close the Lakers superstar was to jumping ship.
As noted by the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers were fresh off a disappointing 2004 NBA Finals and were also dealing with internal turmoil due to the tense relations between Bryant and superstar teammate Shaquille O’Neal and head coach, Phil Jackson. With Jackson resigning from his post at the start of free agency and O’Neal demanding a trade, the Clippers reportedly made a move for Bryant, eight years after they missed out on a chance to take him with the seventh overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.
In his recollection of the Clippers’ apparent attempt to sign Bryant, Lawler described the team’s offer as a “very strong one,” given how it was obvious to league observers that Bryant and O’Neal “could no longer coexist” as teammates. He added that there was some apprehension when Bryant excused himself from his meeting with the Clippers, as then-owner Donald Sterling worried whether the deal would push forward or not.
“Kobe turned to [Sterling] 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,'” Lawler said.
In addition to Lawler, The Los Angeles Times cited an unnamed former Clippers employee, who told the outlet he was informed at that time by then-general manager Elgin Baylor that Bryant had “verbally committed” to the team.
The Clippers reportedly thought they had a verbal commitment from Kobe Bryant in 2004 free agency.
— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) July 24, 2019
As it turned out, Kobe Bryant ended up returning to the Lakers, signing a new seven-year, $136 million contract with the team on July 16, 2004, following discussions with multiple team executives, including then-owner Jerry Buss. That also came one day after the team traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat, where the Hall of Fame center would eventually win his fourth NBA championship in 2006.
Commenting on what might have happened if Bryant spurned the Lakers to join the Clippers in 2004, Silver Screen and Roll wrote that it’s highly possible the Lakers would have “rebounded decently” under Buss’ leadership, with the team choosing to keep O’Neal instead of shipping him to Miami. The outlet, however, added that Bryant could have helped the Clippers become respectable far sooner than they did.