Kobe Bryant's poetic retirement letter closed a chapter on the playing career of the one of the NBA's greatest players ever. A player whose style, bravado, and insatiable desire to destroy his opponents reminded so many fans of the player he was linked to and compared to his entire career - Michael Jordan. Like Jordan, Bryant was a voracious winner who chased glory in the form of championships. Like Jordan, his brilliant career has ended later than it should have. Instead of walking off the court hoisting a Larry O'Brien Championship trophy, Kobe and his hapless Lakers will more than likely miss the playoffs. Many fans will forget these past few years, as many fans of Jordan forget his very forgettable last two seasons with the Washington Wizards.
Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan will forever be linked. It only makes sense that both their draft classes are considered two of the greatest of all time. Drafted twelve years apart, Jordan's 1984 class and Bryant's 1996 class are undeniably two of the greatest draft classes in NBA history.
Kobe Bryant's retirement closes the book on the 1996 NBA Draft class as he is the last player of that class still playing in the NBA. What's incredible about the 1996 draft class is that Kobe, a 17-time NBA All-Star, 5 time NBA champion and the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player, was drafted thirteenth overall. Thirteenth! Twelve players were drafted before him. It's hard to believe that one of the greatest players in NBA history was drafted towards the middle of the first round. While Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson fans might disagree, Kobe Bryant was the best player of the 1996 draft.
The second best player of the '96 draft was Allen Iverson, drafted number one overall by the 76ers after a great career at Georgetown. Like Bryant, Iverson is a sure bet Hall of Famer. The two players would face off in the 2001 NBA Finals, where the 76ers lost in five games to the Lakers. Iverson, who last played in the NBA in 2010, had a brilliant career. He, not Bryant, was the 1997 Rookie of the Year. He was an 11-time NBA All-Star, the NBA Most Valuable Player in 2001, and led the league in scoring four times. His signature cornrows, baggy uniform, and flippant demeanor influenced the basketball world. He was not only basketball, he was pop culture.
The third best player of the '96 draft was Steve Nash. Incredibly, Nash was drafted two spots behind Bryant. The Canadian born point guard was drafted fifteenth overall by the Phoenix Suns after a stellar career at little known Santa Clara where Nash was twice named WCC Player of the Year. Nash was twice named the NBA Most Valuable Player (2005, 2006), once more than both Bryant and Iverson, and an 8-time NBA All-Star.
Nash led the league in assists five times and is considered one of the greatest foreign born players in NBA history as well as one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Nash and Bryant actually got to play together for two seasons in Los Angeles but injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness. Nash is another sure bet for the NBA Hall of Fame.
The fourth best player of the '96 draft was Ray Allen. Drafted number five overall from UConn, Allen was one of the deadliest shooters during his playing days. Allen was a 10-time NBA All-Star and a two-time NBA champion. He holds the NBA record for 3-pt field goals made. Allen is another member of the '96 draft class headed to the NBA Hall of Fame.
The 1996 NBA Draft produced a number of other noteworthy players including Jermaine O'Neal (6x NBA All-Star), Antoine Walker (3x NBA All-Star), Stephon Marbury (2x NBA All-Star), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1x NBA All-Star), Peja Stojaković (3x NBA All-Star), and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (2x NBA All-Star). Marcus Camby, drafted second overall, never lived up to the potential of a number two pick but he produced a solid NBA career. Camby played for 17 seasons, was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and led the NBA in blocks four times.
The biggest surprise/steal of the draft was Ben Wallace. Undrafted out of Virginia Union, Wallace played 16 seasons in the NBA and remains the only undrafted player in NBA history to be voted a starter for the NBA All-Star Game. Wallace was a four-time NBA All-Star and a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo are the only two players in NBA history to receive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award four times.
Wallace was the starting center for the Detroit Pistons when they upset the heavily favored Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal led Lakers to win the 2004 NBA Championship. Wallace had a great career, especially considering he was undrafted.
Another notable player of the class was Derek Fisher, currently the head coach of the New York Knicks. Fisher was drafted 24th overall in the '96 draft by the Lakers. Fisher and Bryant played thirteen seasons together, which included winning five NBA championships.
Besides Fisher, Bryant won NBA championships with two other members of the 1996 NBA Draft. Samaki Walker, drafted ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks, played two seasons in LA with Bryant. Walker was a member of the 2002 NBA Championship winning Lakers team. Travis Knight, drafted 29th overall by the Chicago Bulls, was a role player on the 2000 Lakers team that won the NBA Championship.
Kobe's retirement at the end of the season will coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the 1996 NBA Draft Class. His career, like the 1996 class, is and will be defined by greatness.
Image credits: nba.com, backofthejersey.com, washingtonpost.com, slamonline.com, latimes.com, sikids.com.