Bob Bass might have traded Kobe Bryant, but he did so much more with Hor­nets

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY RICK BON­NELL rbon­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Bob Bass is the one gen­eral man­ager ever to trade for­mer NBA su­per­star Kobe Bryant.

He did so much more than that in a pro bas­ket­ball ca­reer that spanned five decades. He was the most im­pact­ful GM in Char­lotte NBA his­tory. Bass died Fri­day in San Antonio at the age of 89. He suf­fered two strokes re­cently.

Bass be­gan as Hor­nets GM in 1995, work­ing for owner Ge­orge Shinn, and re­tired in 2004 after guid­ing the fran­chise through the move to New Or­leans. Yes, he traded two fu­ture Hall of Famers in Bryant and Alonzo Mourn­ing. He also got the Hor­nets to the play­offs in seven of his nine sea­sons, over­saw the only two sea­sons of 50 or more vic­to­ries in fran­chise his­tory, and won the NBA Ex­ec­u­tive of the Year in 1997 after the Hor­nets won 54 games.

Bass was as old-school as any­one I’ve cov­ered. He grew up in Ok­la­homa, mar­ried a fel­low coach, Pat, of Na­tive Amer­i­can de­scent, and built a ca­reer work­ing for pre-merger Amer­i­can Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion teams on shoe­string bud­gets. He once told me about sell­ing off of­fice fur­ni­ture to pay some bills at one of his ABA stops in Den­ver, Mi­ami, Mem­phis and San Antonio.

Those ex­pe­ri­ences cer­tainly sculpted his ap­proach to run­ning the Hor­nets.

“When­ever I met with my fi­nan­cial peo­ple be­fore a sea­son and set a bud­get – like good bas­ket­ball peo­ple, we had to man­age it like a busi­ness – Bob

would never ex­ceed that,” thenHor­nets owner Ge­orge Shinn said Satur­day.

Bass was with the Spurs when the merger hap­pened, and spent 20 years there al­ter­nately as coach or in the front of­fice. He drafted an­other Hall of Famer, David Robin­son, No. 1 over­all in 1987 when that was a some­what risky move be­cause Robin­son’s mil­i­tary com­mit­ment as a Naval Academy grad­u­ate en­dan­gered the Spurs’ draft rights if he didn’t sign quickly.

All that pre­pared Bass for some tense times over­see­ing the Hor­nets.


Quickly after Bass came to Char­lotte (fill­ing the GM role when Al­lan Bris­tow left the front of­fice to coach the Hor­nets), the Mourn­ing sit­u­a­tion came to a head. The cen­ter was pass­ing Larry John­son as the Hor­nets’ best player at a rapid rate and it be­came ap­par­ent the fran­chise had to ei­ther lock him up with a record-set­ting new con­tract or make sure they didn’t lose him for noth­ing in fu­ture free agency.

That be­came a show­down lead­ing up to the 1995-96 sea­son. To this day there are hard feel­ings, as Shinn and Mourn­ing have con­trast­ing views on what this was re­ally about – money or whether Mourn­ing wanted to re­main in Char­lotte.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions came to an im­passe and Bass searched out a trade. He found a deal with the Mi­ami Heat that would bring Glen Rice, Matt Geiger, Khalid Reeves and a fu­ture first-round pick to the Hor­nets. The prob­lem? Mourn­ing thought his new team was giv­ing up too much.

So Bass went tough guy; he threat­ened to deal Mourn­ing to a team he’d want no part of, even if that meant the Hor­nets get­ting much less back. So the Heat deal went through and Rice be­came one of the best play­ers in Hor­nets his­tory in the three sea­sons he played in Char­lotte.


Bass knew some­thing weird was per­co­lat­ing lead­ing up to the 1996 draft: A high school player from sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia, Kobe Bryant, re­fused to work out for the Hor­nets and some other teams with high first-round picks. Bass asked me about a week be­fore that draft if I was hear­ing any­thing about what Bryant and his then-agent, Arn Tellem, were do­ing.

Tellem was work­ing with thenLak­ers gen­eral man­ager Jerry West to get Bryant to Los An­ge­les. West was also ma­neu­ver­ing to cre­ate enough space un­der the salary cap to pur­sue cen­ter Shaquille O’Neal in free agency. That would in­volve trad­ing cen­ter Vlade Di­vac to a team that could ab­sorb Di­vac’s re­main­ing salary with­out trad­ing an­other con­tract to the Lak­ers.

The Hor­nets fit that de­scrip­tion, and shortly be­fore the draft West and Bass agreed to a ten­ta­tive deal where if Bryant was avail­able with the Hor­nets’ 13th over­all pick, Bryant’s draft rights would be dealt for Di­vac.

“Bob ex­plained to us how much Vlade would help the team,” Shinn re­called. “Kobe’s agent let us know there was no way he would be a Hor­net. It was Bob’s na­ture if some­one didn’t want to be with us, he would work it out – like when Zo left, we ac­tu­ally got bet­ter.”

Like with the Mourn­ing pro­posed trade, there was a com­pli­ca­tion. Di­vac, who loved South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, said he’d re­tire rather than move to Char­lotte. So Bass – in a typ­i­cally calm but firm voice – told me if Di­vac didn’t change his mind, the Hor­nets would just keep Bryant re­gard­less of Bryant’s threat to play over­seas (where his fa­ther had once played pro­fes­sion­ally).

I re­mem­ber call­ing Tellem for com­ment on Bass’ state­ment; Tellem was scream­ing and swear­ing. I also re­mem­ber Bass not car­ing how ag­i­tated Tellem or Di­vac was. Over the fol­low­ing days Di­vac blinked, agree­ing to be a Hor­net, and he was a great team­mate to a group built around Rice and An­thony Ma­son.

A cou­ple of weeks into Bryant’s rookie sea­son, I in­ter­viewed him in New York and asked what he re­ally would have done had the trade not gone through. Bryant ad­mit­ted he’d be a Hor­net.


Shinn adored him so much that late in Bass’ ca­reer Shinn of­fered him a 10-year con­tract. Bass said that was un­nec­es­sary, that no one would need his bas­ket­ball opin­ions when he was 80.

“He was the most bril­liant bas­ket­ball guy I have met. So adept at eval­u­at­ing tal­ent,” Shinn said. “He al­ways kept me posted, and I stayed out of his way. We had that kind of re­la­tion­ship and it was the best.”

It wasn’t the same for Shinn’s then-part­ner in Hor­nets own­er­ship, Ray Wooldridge. Lead­ing into the 2001 draft, Wooldridge ar­gued for the Hor­nets to se­lect a for­ward out of the Big Ten. Bass in­stead wanted a Euro­pean point guard. Wooldridge, Shinn re­called, was adamant.

Shinn says he stayed out of that de­bate, which proved to be a ma­jor mis­take. Wooldridge’s guy was In­di­ana for­ward Kirk Has­ton, who the Hor­nets drafted 16th over­all. Has­ton lasted all of two sea­sons in the NBA, av­er­ag­ing 1.2 points and shoot­ing 23 per­cent from the field.

Bass’ point guard was French­man Tony Parker, se­lected 28th over­all by the Spurs. Seven­teen sea­sons later, Parker’s time as a Spur has fi­nally ended. He’s a six-time Al­lS­tar and vi­able Hall of Famer who signed in July with the Hor­nets to back up Kemba Walker next sea­son.

Yeah, Bass knew bet­ter. By a mile.

Ob­server file photo

Bob Bass, left, was named the NBA Ex­ec­u­tive of the Year for 1996-97 after the Hor­nets won 54 games. No other Char­lotte NBA ex­ec­u­tive has won the honor.

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