NBA history, 20 years in the making
The NBA playoffs are well underway, so the Golden State Warriors’ 73 regular-season wins and Kobe Bryant’s 60 career-finale points have faded from the front page. The anticipation of these events has brought excitement throughout the season, but their culmination, on the same night, marks the end of a era. Twenty years ago, the Chicago Bulls won 72 regular-season games and, two months later, the Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant.
The NBA had reasons to celebrate the 1995-1996 season before it started. It was the 50th season for the Association, and it was the first for the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies. Besides its golden anniversary and expansion to Canada, the NBA had the commitment of its biggest superstar, Michael Jordan. His Airness had an entire off-season to prepare for his first complete season with the Chicago Bulls since his (first) retirement.
The GOAT was the MVP. His trusted partner Scottie Pippen and their new teammate Dennis Rodman earned individual honors, too. They were supported by guru coach Phil Jackson and role players like Toni Kukoc, who were the Coach of the Year and the Sixth Man of the Year, respectively. The Bulls hinted weakness against opponents with high-scoring point guards or big men, or both, but otherwise the team was dominant (Basketball-Reference.com).
The Bulls won their final regular-season game to set the record at 72 wins. In the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls won 11 of 12 total games against, in order, the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, and Orlando Magic. In the NBA Finals, Jordan and company had slightly more trouble against the Seattle Supersonics; the Bulls lost two games in a row before they clinched the best-of-seven series in Game 6 and capped their historic season.
Two months after it crowned the Bulls, the NBA welcomed 58 draftees. The Class of 1996 included an obvious first-overall pick, some other college stars, several international projects, two high-school prodigies, and one questionable championship runner-up. This draft class was memorable partly because of this mix. Hubie Brown had declared that it was “very deep” and “overloaded at the [forward] positions.” He was right about both things.
Besides having a dozen impact-players and a lot of 3s and 4s, this draft class was also unusually young. Six of the top-10 selections were underclassmen, and only one, Kerry Kittles, was a senior. Sophomore Allen Iverson was selected first, and freshmen Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury were selected third and fourth, respectively. Kobe and Jermaine O’Neal were even younger; at 17, they were selected 13th and 17th, respectively.
The stage in Continental Airlines Arena was the focus, but the backdrop was interesting too. The New Jersey Nets—whose arena was the draft venue—had a high-profile, new coach who had a choice between two much-needed, shooting guards. John Calipari, who had a recent Final Four appearance, selected Kittles instead of Kobe, despite the latter’s projected greatness. In the second trade of the draft, the LA Lakers acquired Kobe from the Hornets.
Then and Now
The 1996 and 2016 seasons have interesting connections.
|Michael Jordan||Chicago Bulls superstar||Charlotte Hornets part-owner|
|Kobe Bryant||Charlotte Hornets draftee||LA Lakers retiree|
|Byron Scott||LA Lakers reserve||LA Lakers coach*|
|Jerry West||LA Lakers general manager||Golden State Warriors board member|
|Dell Curry||Charlotte Hornets reserve||52-year-old father of Steph Curry|
|Steph Curry||8-year-old son of Dell Curry||Golden State Warriors superstar|
|Steve Kerr||Chicago Bulls reserve||Golden State Warriors coach|
* Byron Scott was recently fired
In 1996, I was obsessed with basketball. I played it whenever and wherever I could. I read every article in my subscription issues of Sport. On weekends, I watched Hang Time, NBA Inside Stuff, and NBA on NBC. I spent my spring break watching March Madness on CBS and, between games, Hoop Dreams on PBS. During the live broadcast of the draft, I made notes about the top 20 or so picks and then created them in NBA Live ’96.
I’ve always liked basketball, pro and college, but I’ve never loved it as much I had in 1996. Other newsworthy events happened in that year. The NBA had its second and shortest lockout; Shaq signed with the Lakers as a free agent; Dream Team II won the Olympic gold medal; the Class of 1996 started their rookie seasons; the 50 Greatest Players were celebrated; and Space Jam had its theatrical release.
Obviously, the Jordan-led Bulls winning 72 games and the Iverson-led draft being justifiably hyped are the defining landmarks of the year in basketball. The 2016 Warriors might be better, especially if they win the championship, and the 1984 draft class might be more historic, but for me, 1996 is the year of the best-ever NBA team and the best-ever NBA draft.