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Picture this: It's another steamy June day in 2016. The streets of Newark are eerily empty at lunchtime. Most are glued to televisions to watch a live news conference held inside the city's downtown basketball arena.

With the rapid clickclickclick of shutters from photographers' cameras, he walks in with his familiar swagger-filled strut. Dressed in a splendid gray suit, he's accompanied by his wife, Vanessa, his children and family.

After 20 seasons and arguably the greatest basketball career the New York metropolitan area has ever seen, Kobe Bryant is ready to announce his retirement as the greatest New Jersey Net of all time.

With his former coaches John Calipari and Phil Jackson, and ex-teammates such as Jayson Williams, Sam Cassell, Kendall Gill and Shaquille O'Neal -- OK, maybe not Shaq -- in attendance, Bryant finishes a Derek Jeteresque run underneath the championship banners he brought to an arena he helped build in downtown Newark.

Sound insane? Sure, but what if the New Jersey Nets had just stuck with their gut and selected a high school kid out of Lower Merion (Pa.) High School eighth overall instead of Villanova's Kerry Kittles in the 1996 NBA draft?

It is one of the great what-ifs in NBA history. The fortunes of one of the most star-crossed franchises in sports could have changed overnight.

"It changes the landscape of basketball," says Jason Kidd, a Net from 2001 to '08. "It would have made New Jersey an attractive place, a basketball hotbed with a player like that. When you have a player like Kobe Bryant and what he can do, he would definitely have gotten talent.

"And maybe Shaq would have been one of those pieces."

As Bryant makes what could be his final trip to the New York area to play the Nets in Brooklyn on Friday and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, considers what might have happened if the Nets had taken Kobe instead of Kittles.

The Bluff

It was June 1996 and the No. 1 song in the country was "Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Coincidentally, the Nets found themselves at their own crossroads.

Calipari faced a dilemma as he entered his first NBA draft after being hired by the Nets' owners, known by many as the "Secaucus Seven." The former UMass head coach was fixated on a can't-miss high school prospect named Kobe Bryant. The Nets had worked out Bryant three times and each time the high school guard wowed Nets management.

During one of the workouts at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Bryant was pitted against two Nets players -- Ed O'Bannon and Khalid Reeves. O'Bannon was the team's ninth overall pick in 1995 after a decorated college career that included a national championship, the Final Four most outstanding player award and the John Wooden award.

And yet, the 17-year-old Bryant relentlessly attacked O'Bannon during the workout.

"If you watched the workouts," Calipari said to ESPN's Ian O'Connor in 2011, "you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he's ridiculous."

John Nash, the team's general manager, had deep Philadelphia ties and he knew all about the high school phenom who was creating a buzz throughout the Philadelphia basketball circle.

Nash used to have weekly conversations with former NBA player John Lucas, who oversaw some basketball workouts at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue in Philadelphia, where pros such as Jerry Stackhouse worked out.

"I called John Lucas once a week and asked how his guys were doing," Nash recalled. "[One time] I said, 'What about Stack?' Lucas said, 'Well, he is the second best 2-guard in the gym.' So I asked who is the best because I am trying to figure out in my mind who is [better than Stackhouse]. Lucas says, 'Oh, Kobe kicks his ass every day.'

"The legend of Kobe was very vivid in my mind."

On the night before the draft, Nets management entertained Bryant's parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J., where Calipari had temporary residence on the top floor in a presidential suite. Everybody seemed to be on board with Bryant's becoming Calipari's first NBA draft pick.

"We were ready to take Kobe," said Joe Taub, one of the Nets' primary owners then. "But then a lot of things happened with management and the agent and things changed that [draft] night."

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When Kobe was drafted, the NBA CBA was such that players would be UFAs in 3 years if they were no longer under contract.

Kobe would have fled to Lakers three years after he was drafted.

Nets did better with Kittles, who helped Nets reach the finals twice.
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