It had been a frustrating few weeks back in 1995. My assignment was to write a feature for Slam magazine about Kobe Bryant, then a standout at Lower Merion high School. But I couldn’t get a minute with him, much less some real time for an interview. Imagine, a high school kid more difficult to corral than an NBA player.
His coach, Gregg Downer, wasn’t able to help, and not because he was being protective or grouchy. It’s just that everybody wanted some time with Bryant. I ambushed his father, former NBA player and Philly hoops legend Joe, after the Aces had dropped an early-season game against St. Anthony’s High School in New Jersey. “Sure,” Joe told me. “Just give me a call, and I’ll set it up.”
Thank goodness. So I called … and called. Nothing.
One weekday afternoon, I went over to Lower Merion and started wandering the halls around the gym. I prowled. I lurked. Then, I peeked inside a room, and there he was, sitting on a training table with ice on one of his ankles.
Bryant wasn’t at all irritated to see me. We started talking. He was confident and at ease, as if he’d been playing pro ball for 10 years and was used to the whole media thing. But then came trouble. Downer stuck his head inside the room and asked, “What’s going on here?” As I stumbled to explain the breach in protocol, Bryant took over. “It’s cool,” he said. “Don’t worry.” Downer didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t going to overrule his star player. He shook his head and left.
Several months later, after Bryant had led the Aces to their first state title in 53 years, set a state scoring record with 2,883 career points and won every possible local, state and national award, he announced that he’d be heading straight to the NBA, following Kevin Garnett, who, a year earlier, was the first high school student to enter the NBA Draft in 20 years.
It wasn’t an unexpected disclosure. Many people expected Bryant to go right to the big time. If you spent any time around him and his family during that 1995-96 season, there was a feeling that this wasn’t just a high school player leading his school to a state title. Usually when that happens, the hysteria is localized. A town is engulfed. Maybe the areas around are touched.
But Bryant was more than just a Lower Merion star. He seemed to belong to the entire Philadelphia area—and especially to the Main Line, which hadn’t exactly been known for its basketball prowess over the previous several decades. This was a full-on, make-sure-you-see-it phenomenon.
Bryant seemed older than he was—wiser and almost winking at the whole process. Maybe it had to do with his father’s NBA experience. There was also the fact that he’d spent seven years in Italy while his dad played in the A1 and A2 Italian leagues. If you caught the Bryant Show—whether on a regular basis or through a single-occasion collision with his arc toward all-time greatness—you understood that what you were seeing was a once-in-a-generation spectacle. People even witnessed it at the Narberth playground, where unfortunate opponents hoping to get in a little summer work had to deal with guarding him—or, worse, having him guard them. He spread his talent to the Sonny Hill League in Philadelphia and even showed up occasionally at Sixers practices.
So when Bryant arrived at Lower Merion in that sharp suit and told everyone that he was ready for the NBA, it was hard to doubt him. And though he wasn’t picked until the 13th spot (by Charlotte), it was clear to most that he’d be a star.
The question was: Where? It wasn’t going to be his hometown. The 76rs took Allen Iverson first overall that year. And it wasn’t going to be in Charlotte, which was hardly a preferred destination for Bryant to become the full-on sensation he’d hoped to be.
Los Angeles made sense—and the Lakers wanted him. General manager Jerry West had even worked with Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, to limit the young player’s exposure to other teams before the draft. Five days after the Hornets took him, the Lakers announced they’d traded center Vlade Divac for Bryant. It was the beginning of a 20-year relationship that included 18 All-Star appearances, five NBA titles and 33,643 points. Bryant’s career was not without its controversies, and his carefully crafted “Black Mamba” persona wasn’t always the picture of competitive excellence.
But the teenager from Lower Merion grew into a man capable of many amazing things, on and away from the court. He often transcended the banalities of regular-season games and the annual trudge through the NBA season.
Bryant’s death—way too early and way too sad, especially since his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also taken prematurely—leads us to reminisce and pay tribute. It’s hard to believe he was once a confident high school prodigy. But then, don’t all our heroes have origin stories?
It’s just that Bryant’s origin story belongs to us on the Main Line. And it always will.
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