When Kobe Bryant declared himself eligible for the 1996 NBA Draft at age 17, most were skeptical that he could become a good, let alone a great player at the NBA level.
The Los Angeles Lakers brought him in for a predraft workout that spring and decided to see what he was made of by having Michael Cooper, a defensive stalwart during the team’s Showtime era, guard the Philadelphia-area native.
In an exclusive interview with Lakers Daily, Cooper talked about how impressive and special Bryant looked that day.
“That was a day that we knew Kobe was going to be a great player,” said Cooper. “Jerry West, I was with the coaching staff with Del Harris, and Jerry asked me to go against him. Kobe was there with three or four other players.
“There were some specific things I was supposed to do. They put some Xs on the floor like at the elbow, down in the low block and there was some pick-and-roll stuff.
“My job was to play him and keep him off of those spots, and that was the one thing that really amazed me, and I was in awe about Kobe. As a 17-year-old kid, this guy could maneuver himself and get to those spots.
“There was a couple of times I kept him off of those, and I made him take some tough shots, and he hit some shots, but that’s when you knew because a lot of times young players don’t know how to do that — work their way to get to a spot. I thought that was very unique that Jerry West had that planned out as far as the workout.
“Yeah, we could come in there and play one on one. He can come in there, and we watch him go up and down, but there were some specific things that he wanted to see if Kobe was able to do that.
“’Coop, just make him use his left. Make him just use his right. Maneuver your way off a pick-and-roll.’ He had to dribble down, wait for the screen to come over, and then come off the pick. My job was to stop all of that.”
Ryan Ward of Lakers Daily then asked if it was Cooper’s job to make Bryant adjust as much as possible.
“Exactly!” responded Cooper. “That was the fun part about it because I was out of my playing days, but still, I understood this game and from the defensive perspective, that’s something you never lose.
“There was a thing down in the low post where he would get a cross pick. Kobe would be on one side of the block, and the guy would come set a pick on me, and he had to get and stay on that low block in the low post.
“I was pushing and banging on him and stuff like that. He was stronger than a normal high school kid at that age. That was the other thing that impressed me. Very, very strong and he always took shots that he wanted to take.
“Most of the time it was a shot that he wanted, and it was a very, very grueling and physical workout. Some people say he got the best of me. I beg to differ because I was out there [laughs].
“The bottom line is after that workout, we knew that Kobe was our pick. They knew that they were going to have to do what they got to do to get him.
“I caught a couple elbows in the chest that Larry Bird could’ve given me [laughs].
“Kobe was something else!”
During his playing days in the 1980s, Cooper was perhaps the best wing defender in the NBA.
The fact that Bryant apparently gave him fits during the workout speaks volumes about the talent that the 17-year-old possessed.
It took a few years for him to develop, but Bryant went on to become the best overall player in the NBA for many years.
By delivering five NBA championships and setting numerous statistical records, Bryant ingratiated himself into Lakers royalty by the end of his playing career.