One phone call. One phone call could’ve changed the history of the NBA. I’m serious. It was the night before the 1996 NBA draft. The call was meant for Kobe Bryant, from a GM trying to make a last-minute pitch just hours before the big show. But Kobe never got the call. Before I tell you about how that happened, let me set the stage.
I got drafted 20 years ago this week. The 1996 NBA draft class is considered one of the best in history. Kobe, Iverson, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Marcus Camby, Peja Stojakovic, Antoine Walker … I could go on. I’m so honored to be part of that group.
For as long as I can remember, especially as a kid growing up, the NBA draft has been a special event to me. I never missed the draft on TV growing up. As a young kid, the draft represented an unreachable dream — my childhood heroes sitting in custom suits, poised and so cool. Billy Owens, Steve Smith and Larry Johnson were the larger-than-life college basketball players I followed growing up. I emulated their moves on the playground. I remember thinking, How can they wait so patiently for their name to be called?
On TV, the draft all seemed so choreographed. The players looked so cool walking up to shake the commissioner’s hand, never missing a step as they made their way to the stage. I paid attention to all the details. One of my favorite things was how the commissioner pronounced each name perfectly — there are always some really tough ones. Of course at that age, I imagined David Stern pronouncing my name someday.
In my mind, the draft was the perfect event.
But in reality, the draft was much different than it seemed on TV. The whole night was a blur. Getting picked third fulfilled a lifelong dream, but that night didn’t feel choreographed in any way.
Take the predraft photo, for example — the photo the draft prospects take with the commissioner about an hour before he calls their names.
Go ahead and Google 1996 NBA draft commissioner photo.
Now click on the group picture.
No, not this one. This was the cover we did for SLAM.
The official draft photo. Got that one pulled up?
The guy in the white suit on the right in the back row? That’s Ray-Ray. The short white guy next to him? That’s Steve Nash. Nobody knew much about him back then, but that Canadian kid would go on to be a two-time MVP and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. The guy in the green jacket is Antoine — did he know he was going to be a Celtic? Stephon Marbury was one of my buddies growing up playing AAU ball. He’s in the back row on the far left. Speaking of Stephon Marbury, one of my most vivid memories of the draft was the watch he wore. I can still see that watch in my mind. I think a clothing company that wanted to sign him gave it to him as a gift.
Stephon and I went back a little ways. One year before, we hung out the night before I left my hometown of Atlanta to attend summer school at Cal Berkeley. He had just got in town from New York to spend the summer at Georgia Tech. We were both excited about our freshman year. Steph was more confident than me about how it would go on the court. A lot of scouts were talking about his prospects for the NBA. But one-and-done was not even a thing at the time, so leaving school after a single season was not even on our minds. The 1996 draft was the next time we met up in person.
It’s very popular nowadays to compare draft classes. The ’84 draft was killer: Jordan, Hakeem, Barkley, Stockton. The ’03 class is crazy, too: LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, Wade.
I think you can make case the for the 1996 draft class being the best of all time. Look at the picture: Those guys look really young and bright-eyed … it’s hard to imagine that the ‘96 draft would produce five NBA champions. Kobe would win five. Ray Allen would win two. There were also three MVPs, and numerous All-Star appearances. Allen Iverson would win four scoring titles.
If you had told me that the 1996 class would have received so many accolades, my 19-year-old self would have just smiled from ear to ear. I’m happy to say I’m a member of a historic class and that I was able to accomplish some of those lofty achievements. Yeah, I made an All-Star team, but all the real hardware and accolades should go to my contemporaries here.
By the way, still can’t find me in the picture?
Let’s do a quick head count: 19 players, plus Commissioner Stern.
I went for a basic black suit that night and a light blue shirt with a patterned tie.
See me yet?
I’m not there. That’s because … I missed the bus to the draft earlier that day.
People ask me a lot about my draft class, but nobody really remembers that I missed my own draft photo — well, except for my mom, who still brings it up.
Like, How do you miss your own draft photo?
So for the last time, Mom: Here’s how I missed the bus.
The last 24 hours before the draft were so busy. I mean really busy. I was running around all day trying to get things done. There were nonstop media obligations: photos, interviews, meetings.
And I had gotten a late start because I flew into New Jersey less than 48 hours before the draft — other draft prospects had arrived three or four days in advance. I had traveled to Vancouver and Toronto at the last minute for team workouts. (The Raptors and Grizzlies had the second and third picks.)
I was so wiped out by the time I arrived. After checking into the hotel, I went over to my mom’s room. She was busy figuring out how all my family members could sit in the green room with me. The NBA only allots a limited number of seats per draftee, so if you have a big family like me, somebody is going to have to get cut. Apologies, again, to my little brothers. They got bumped by their elders, which sucked because, other than my mother, they had probably watched more practices and games than anybody. If I could change one thing, I would probably try to find a way to get them into the green room.
I swear, this is all a lead-up to how I missed the bus.
I blame a wardrobe malfunction.
I had ordered two suits, complete with dress shirts and neckties. Most of it was already at the hotel, but by the morning of the draft I still didn’t have everything — so I needed to go to the mall. It was me and a friend, at the hotel in the Meadowlands. We had to make a decision: find a local New Jersey mall or take the tunnel to New York City. Remember that we’re both 19 years old at the time — I had never been to New York, so what do you think I decided to do? I would be back in more than enough time for the draft — at least that’s what I thought.
Looking back, it was a bad rookie mistake. Or I guess it was a prerookie mistake. Going into NYC four hours before the biggest moment of your life and thinking you’d make it back to East Rutherford in time? Sure, Shareef.
What I didn’t count on was the allure of seeing New York City for the first time. I completely lost track of time just walking the streets and people watching. (But I did get that dress shirt.) The other thing I didn’t count on was traffic. What had been a 15-minute drive through the tunnel to New York City on the way in became a 60-minute drive on the way back — the traffic was terrible. By the time I got back to the hotel, everybody else was already walking out to the bus in front of the hotel. I was still in street clothes.
When I finally got back to my room, I noticed a blinking light on my hotel phone. I didn’t think much about it, other than that it was annoying. I was in a total rush. After I finished getting dressed, I realized I hadn’t packed my dress socks. The tailor that had made my suits had added an extra pair of socks, but they were those white silk ones, the ones your uncle wears with shorts to picnics. I also remember not being able to tie a tie, but everyone else was gone, so I was on my own. I figured it out somehow. Amazing what you can do under pressure.
I was set and ready to go. About 30 minutes late, but ready to get drafted.
Before I left my room, though, I had to stop that annoying blinking light, so I checked my messages. To my surprise the message was not for me, it was for Kobe. Somehow my room number and his must have gotten mixed up. At the time, he was the high school kid making the jump to the pros. We had both attended the ABCD camp, but that had been the extent of our contact to that point.
The voice on the message was the GM of an Eastern Conference team picking in the top 10. The voice said, “Kobe, I know you don’t want us to take you, but we think you’re our guy and we’re going to take you.”
I was in a rush, so I just remember thinking, Well, I guess I know where Kobe’s going. I hung the phone up and thought nothing else about it. Actually, I never thought about that message and how the team actually didn’t take Kobe until some time later. The day was such a blur — the message was really insignificant to me at the time. In retrospect, it’s a pretty big What if? What if the GM had done what he was going to do? What if the call had gone through to Kobe’s room? How different might the last two decades have been?
Once I did reach the draft, my family was already seated in the green room. My mother gave me that familiar look — the look that said, Where you been? It was the same look she would give me when I would come in a little late from playing ball in the neighborhood. Lucky for me, the wait in the green room wasn’t bad at all because I was selected early. It was only about 15 minutes.
I knew I wasn’t going No. 1. The buzz that night was all about a six-foot-one guy who apparently was as good at football as he was at basketball. The legend himself, A.I. Philadelphia had worked out a couple of other guys, but A.I. was the obvious choice. There was no doubt he was going first.
I remember that A.I. had a large group of family and friends, too. I remember him being upset that he didn’t have enough room for two of his closest friends in the green room. A.I. developed a reputation over his storied career of going against the status quo, and that started draft night.
When Iverson’s name was called, he hugged all his family and friends in the green room, but then he started walking away from the stage. On live TV. No one knew where he was walking off to. Where was the No. 1 pick walking?
What we learned later is that A.I. had told his two friends to wait right outside the green room. Before he headed to shake the commissioner’s hand, he stopped to hug his friends. It was such a nice moment. That was A.I. — he never forgot where he came from and he always seemed to support the people around him. Throughout his career, A.I. sometimes got into trouble for being his own person, but I think the way he carried himself also led to him having the kind of singular career that impacted an entire generation.
Next up was Toronto with the second pick. I thought there was a chance I would go to the Raptors because Isiah Thomas was the GM at the time and I remember him telling me that he had a really tough decision to make. He ended up taking Marcus Camby. But the waiting between the first and second pick was definitely exciting and nerve-racking for me.
I knew I wasn’t getting past No. 3.
Stu Jackson, the GM of the Vancouver Grizzlies, told my agent and I that there was no way I would get past him at three. I just trusted Stu’s word. A few months later, he actually took over the coaching duties of Grizzlies early in my rookie season and I learned that my instincts about him were right. He was a guy who kept his word and said what he meant. But he was tough, too. No doubt about it, Stu was the toughest coach I ever played for. He would ride me about my rebounding in front of the entire team. “Shareef,” he would say, looking at the the halftime stat sheet, “you have one more rebound than a dead man.” But he did it out of love. He was great to me — and we’ve maintained a really great relationship over the years.
When I heard my name, I remember just sitting and clapping my hands for what felt like 30 seconds. I think someone nudged me, as if to say, Shareef, stand up. I was taking it all in. I finally stood up and I hugged everyone at my table. My mother and I hugged the longest. Walking off the stage, I looked out to see my little brothers and my friends who were seated in the stands. They were already wearing Grizzlies hats. Steve Frost, Vancouver’s p.r. person, had figured they were my family from their reaction when my name was announced, and he hurried over to them to give them hats. It was such a cool move.
Frost handed me a Grizzlies jersey with the number 1 on the front. (I was secretly hoping for number 3 on the front — the number I wore in my career and the position I went in the draft.)
After I left the green room, I was able to reach into the stands and slap my brothers and his friends all five. To this day, I remember their reaction so well. They were so happy. You would have thought they were the ones who got drafted.
Backstage, I ran into Stephon. There was so much going on. Two minutes later he was being pulled away — he and Ray Allen were being traded for each other. Steph would end up in Minnesota. This was really exciting, because just the year before Kevin Garnett had been drafted by Minnesota out of high school. We had all competed in AAU games together throughout high school and played in McDonald’s High School All-American game together after our senior year. Steph and KG were close — and it’s amazing to think about it now because they made a heck of a tandem in Minnesota for the first two years, even making the playoffs my rookie season.
All the media interviews took about two hours. My family met me back at the hotel, they were waiting for me in the lobby. My mother has a picture of that moment — all of us in a picture with my agent, my little brothers in Grizzlies hats tilted to the side. I’m seated, so you can see the awful white silk socks. I was extremely hungry. My agent arranged for a limousine to take us wherever we wanted to go.
At 19, where could I go?
We all piled into the limo and found a little lounge that was open late. We got a table, ordered food and cracked jokes until the place closed. To drink? We had sodas.
It was a great time, so innocent. Everything after that night became so serious. Early in my career, when life got busy, I remember wishing I could snap back, just for a second, to that time. Sometimes I still do.