Basketball

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

Former Charlotte Hornets general manager Bob Bass died Friday. He was 89.
Former Charlotte Hornets general manager Bob Bass died Friday. He was 89. San Antonio Express-News

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 had suffered two strokes recently.

Bass began as Hornets GM in 1995, working for then-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,” 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 Robinson didn’t sign quickly.

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

The Zo crisis

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.

The Kobe trade

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.

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Bob Bass began as Charlotte Hornets GM in 1995, working for owner George Shinn, and retired in 2004 after guiding the franchise through the move to New Orleans. Above, Bass poses for this 1999 file photo as Hornets players practice behind him. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Tellem was working with then-Lakers 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.”

As 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 have been a Hornet.

Lost argument; lost great one

Shinn adored Bass so much that late in Bass’s 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.”

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Bob Bass 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. Above, in 1997, Bass gets comfortable in a black 1965 Oldsmobile convertible that team owner George Shinn (right) gave him as special recognition for the award. Staff File Photo The Charlotte Observer

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, whom 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’s 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 All-Star 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.

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