August 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Remembering Kobe: The 1996 pre-draft workout nobody believed

In the 1990s, it was standard procedure for the Clippers to reuse their stock of VHS tapes as often as possible. Old games and outdated opponent scouting videos had particularly short shelf lives. The team’s draft workouts were no exception.

Once the league’s annual draft finished, so was the usefulness gleaned from watching a prospect working out alone. The job of taping over the VHS usually fell to Rex Kalamian, a Monterey Park native in his late 20s who handled the team’s video duties, even after his promotion to coach Bill Fitch’s staff of assistants.

By the time Kalamian stood behind a camera between the top of the Sports Arena’s three-point arc and midcourt line on June 22, 1996, four days before the draft, he and a small group of Clippers officials pondering what to do with the seventh pick had already worked out college stars that included Antoine Walker, Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles and Samaki Walker.

Almost as soon as Kalamian hit record, at 9:30 a.m., and 17-year-old Kobe Bryant began pogoing off two legs to make a series of layups, performing “probably the most athletic Mikan drill you’re ever going to see,” Kalamian recognized what he and others were watching was unique.

Tiring at the end of the 60-second Mikan drill, missing shots with either hand, Bryant finished with a “statement,” Kalamian said — a thunderous dunk off two feet from below the basket. In blue shorts and a gray T-shirt bearing the Clippers’ logo, Bryant walked toward halfcourt with a slight scowl. That was the warmup.

“At one point Jim Brewer, one of the assistant coaches, walked by,” Kalamian said. “And he said to me, ‘Are you looking at what I’m looking at right now?’”

A former Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach gave The Times exclusive footage of Kobe Bryant’s 1996 pre-NBA draft workout with the team.

He still can, in fact, because Kalamian never taped over Bryant’s workout.

After the Clippers picked Wright and the Lakers traded for Bryant, who was taken 13th by Charlotte, his intuition told him to keep the VHS.

“This one, I knew was going to be something that I would want to look back at someday,” Kalamian said. “I kind of put it aside and kept it in a box for a very long time.”

His decision preserved a slightly grainy but little-seen window into the budding start of one of the NBA’s most iconic careers.

Now an assistant in Sacramento, the seventh stop of his 28-year NBA career, Kalamian recently showed the video to Kings coach Luke Walton, a former Lakers teammate of Bryant, during a road trip. Two years ago, while coaching with the Clippers, Kalamian didn’t think much of it when he asked a video staffer to convert a CD of the workout into a digital file.

“I walked by the video room about an hour later and there must have been about eight people surrounding the monitor,” he said. “They were all astonished. They’d just watched an hour of Kobe Bryant at [17] years old doing a workout.”

Brewer, speaking by phone this week, was fascinated to hear the video had been saved.

“That was very insightful of Rex to do that,” Brewer said. “I knew that was a special workout. … The bounce, the explosion, how he pushed off. The lengths to which he could push himself.”

No one who left the Sports Arena that day predicted the lofty heights Bryant would eventually reach, but there were clues of his unique gifts. Fitch pushed prospects hard to gauge how they played under fatigue. Bryant, as just a teen, handled it better than others who’d spent four years in college, Brewer said.

“It was like seeing a beautiful woman, it’s like, ‘Holy mackerel, this guy,’” former Clippers assistant Barry Hecker said in 2020. “He had the size and had the confidence, even then.”

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who won two titles as Bryant’s Lakers teammate, said he has yet to meet a player who can match Bryant’s relentless competitiveness, and it was on display early. Over lunch at Aunt Kizzy’s in Marina Del Rey, after the workout, Bryant told team officials he was consumed by basketball and pursuing greatness, recalled Kalamian, who was sitting next to Bryant.

Fitch liked to have draft prospects compete in shooting games against Kalamian, a former guard at East Los Angeles College and Cal Poly Pomona, and about 10 minutes into his workout, Bryant was the first to make 15 shots from the free-throw line’s elbow — the last shot with his left hand.

Fitch later had the two play HORSE, and Bryant proposed raising the stakes: If the young assistant lost, he’d have to wash and detail Bryant’s car.

“I tell you, every time I saw him for about the next 10 years he’d say to me, ‘You owe me a car wash!’” Kalamian said.

In the year since the death of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, the video has taken on more personal resonance beyond just the sight of seeing a five-time champion on the cusp of stardom. On homemade posters, basketballs and even the painted asphalt, thousands who’d gathered near Staples Center in the days after the Jan. 26, 2020, crash wrote down their earliest, fondest memories of the 6-foot-6 guard. Memories can be faulty, though, conflating some moments or exaggerating others.

Kalamian, however, could turn to a resource few others had: a time capsule documenting, in full, the first of their many interactions as the years wore on and each established himself in the league.

“For the next 24 years, he treated me like a guy that I’d known forever,” Kalamian said. “Every time I saw him. That’s the way that I think so many people felt. You kind of felt something from him, he had a way about him that you felt like, he was a friend.”

Bryant never did get the car wash. Kalamian had something else for him.

Years into their careers, Kalamian told Bryant that he still had the footage from June 22, 1996. Bryant was intrigued, Kalamian said. The next time their teams played, the assistant called over a ball boy to deliver a CD case to the visitor’s locker room. Bryant sent back an autographed pair of game-worn sneakers as thanks, with one instruction for Kalamian: Give these to your son.

“My son still has the shoes,” he said.

Did Bryant ever watch it? Kalamian never found out. Still, he believed there was only one answer.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he popped that thing in and watched,” he said. “And he probably critiqued himself over it. ‘I can’t believe I missed those shots.’”