LAS VEGAS – Sometimes things are just destined to happen.
Despite not winning the National Championship, Duke’s 1998-99 team that finished 37-2 is arguably one of the best in both Duke and NCAA history. The team’s 37 wins matched the NCAA record, which was held by Duke’s 1986 team and matched by UNLV in 1987 and Illinois in 2005.
Often times Duke fans wonder if Kobe Bryant had not gone directly to the NBA out of high school if he “maybe” would have attended Duke and been a part of that team.
“There’s no maybe about it,” Bryant says. “Every time I turn on the TV and see Cameron Indoor Stadium, see everybody in Krzyzewskiville and see the Crazies jumping up in down with the intensity and the building almost shaking, I wonder what it would have been like to play there with Corey [Maggette] and Elton [Brand] and all those guys."
In fact, Bryant would’ve been a junior on the 1999 team that featured two future National Players of the Year in Brand and Shane Battier along with Maggette, William Avery, Trajan Langdon and Chris Carrawell, among others.
Instead, Bryant entered the NBA via the No. 13 pick of the 1996 draft and went on to earn his first trophy as winner of the Gatorade Slam Dunk Championship at the 1997 All-Star Weekend. By 1998 he had started an All-Star game and by 1999, he had become the youngest player in NBA history named to an all-NBA team and in 2000, he was the youngest player ever to earn all-defense honors, as well. Ten years into his career he has won three NBA Championships and was also the MVP of the 2002 All-Star game.
But if you ask Coach K what it would’ve been like to coach Bryant in college, he responds by saying, “I don’t day dream. I have enough to think about with my current team than to think what might have been.”
Assistant coach Chris Collins believes Bryant would’ve fit in well as a Blue Devil. Collins has known Bryant since he was a baby because his and Bryant’s fathers played together in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers alongside the likes of Dr. J and the father of another future Blue Devil, Mike Dunleavy, Sr.
“He’s well educated, well spoken, he’s the kind of guy who would have excelled at Duke,” Collins said. “Certainly the fans would’ve enjoyed watching him out there flying around. It’s fun to joke around with him, we consider him part of the family even though he never suited up.”
If Duke fans believe in destiny, they may want to pay closer attention to this year’s FIBA Americas Championship, where Coach K will mentor Bryant for the first time. While Bryant will don a jersey with USA instead of a Duke on it, he has at least, in part, been able to get a taste of what it would have been like to play for Coach K.
“He’s everything I thought he would be and more,” Bryant says. “I have been excited and waiting for this opportunity for a long time. Playing for him now, you realize he’s such a great coach. He communicates extremely well with his players. He’s very intense and has a passion for what he does and he has a great sense of humor.”
Krzyzewski may not day dream about what could have been at Duke in the late ‘90s, but he’s not shy about letting people know what Bryant will mean to the Senior National Team.
"He’s come in and fit in very well," Krzyzewski said. "He is willing to do what it takes for us to win. He mentioned to me that he won’t have the pressure and won’t have to shoot as much for this team to win, and I said 'Well, let’s not go too far.' "
What Coach K and Bryant both want to believe is that they were destined to win a championship together, it just may happen a decade later than originally thought. Instead of a national championship, their focus is qualifying for the Olympics for a shot at a gold medal in Beijing next summer.
“When you have the opportunity to play for your country, it’s a lifetime dream for a lot of us,” Bryant said. “It’s a lot of fun and a great honor.”