Fans were allowed into Arco Arena to watch the 1996 NBA Draft. Half of the lower bowl was focused on a big screen showing a live feed from New York, where the late great commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, stood center stage ready to greet prospects as they were selected.
The arena drew silent as Syracuse forward John Wallace toppled down the draft board and fell right into the lap of the Sacramento Kings at pick No. 14.
“With the 14th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select Predrag Stojakovic, from Paok in Greece.”
Arco Arena went silent. And then a chorus of boos filled the building.
Who? What just happened? How could Geoff Petrie pass on Wallace for a player no one had heard of?
History is on Petrie’s side on this one. Stojakovic waited until the 1998 season to come over from Europe and then he became a shooting sensation for the Kings during their glory years.
Wallace was selected by the New York Knicks four picks later at No. 18. He would go on to play seven uneventful seasons in the NBA for five different teams.
Stojakovic’s career was cut short by back injuries, but he still managed to play 13 seasons in the NBA. He retired as a member of the championship Dallas Mavericks team following the 2010-11 season, leaving the league as a three-time All-Star and ranking third all-time in 3-point makes.
[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
Wallace wasn’t the only player the Kings passed on. Eight-time All-Star and two-time league MVP Steve Nash went fifteenth overall. Six-time All-Star Jermaine O’Neal went as No. 17 overall.
The top end of the 1996 NBA Draft was star-studded, with Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen all going in the top five. But the best player to come out of this particular draft came at pick No. 13, just one selection before Stojakovic.
A Philadelphia high school player by the name of Kobe Bryant partnered with power agent Arn Tellem to get to the Lakers. According to long-time Kings front office man Jerry Reynolds, the Kings were preparing to select Bryant if the Charlotte Hornets hadn’t traded the No. 13 pick to LA in exchange for center Vlade Divac.
“At that time, high school players weren't going that high in the draft as they did a little bit later.” Reynolds recounted to Kings.com's Jordan Ramirez. “But Geoff made it clear to Kobe’s agent, that if his client was there at No. 14 that we would take him.
"Kobe’s camp told us that if he was drafted by the Kings, he wouldn’t sign. Arn Tellem — Bryant's agent — said he wouldn't sign with several teams in front of us either because he wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Tellem had a relationship with Jerry West, who of course was running the Lakers at that time.”
It was a battle of wits between Petrie and Tellem, one that according to Reynolds, Petrie intended to win.
“I know absolutely for a fact that we would’ve taken Kobe, and the only way that he wasn’t going to play for the Sacramento Kings was the Lakers swinging a trade, and they did it,” Reynolds said. “Tellem knew that Geoff Petrie wasn't going to back off like other teams. Kobe didn’t care what position he was drafted, he just wanted to go to the Lakers.”
Bryant, who passed away along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a tragic helicopter accident on Jan. 26, would go on to be an 18-time All-Star and five-time NBA champ with the Lakers. He was recently elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
[RELATED: Buddy matches Kobe stat day after death]
The draft is full of near misses. If nothing else, Petrie forced the Lakers to give up Divac, who would go on to sign with the Kings in free agency a little over two years later.
Stojakovic was a perfect complement to the Kings high-octane offense that would push Bryant and his Lakers teams to the brink during the early 2000s.
After retirement, Stojakovic has come back to Sacramento and currently serves as an assistant general manager to Divac.
But imagine what the Kings might have been able to accomplish with Bryant.