Billy Lange, the first-year head coach at St. Joseph’s, got an up-close look at Kobe Bryant before he had become a national sensation as a high school player, and his first impression was a lasting one.
"I remember coaching in the Sonny Hill League and coming home and telling my father that I think I just coached against the greatest player of all time,” said Lange, who was an assistant coach at Bishop Eustace at the time. “And my dad thought I was exaggerating.”
His father Bill, was the head coach of Bishop Eustace at the time.
Lange, who was an assistant with the 76ers for six years before taking the St. Joseph’s job this season, recalled that Bryant had just returned from Italy, where the family had been living, and was ready to begin his career at Lower Merion.
“He had not exploded on the high school scene yet,” Lange said. “He moved like Michael Jordan and his grace at that age was incredible.”
Lange had difficulty finding words to express his grief.
“It is such a terribly sad day for everybody who was involved," he said. “Such a tragedy.”
Temple coach Aaron McKie was a teammate of Bryant’s during his final two years with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
McKie posted his tribute to Bryant on Twitter. “You dedicated your life to the game of basketball and to being great,” he said, in part. “So many of us are thankful for that.”
McKie, like Bryant, played high school locally. McKie played at Simon Gratz before starring at Temple, then enjoying a 13-year NBA career, including eight seasons with the Sixers.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was also the head coach of the 2008 and 2012 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team that starred Bryant. Krzyzewski called him “an incredibly gifted person who was universally respected.”
“We have tragically lost one of the greatest sports figures of our time with the passing of Kobe Bryant," Krzyzewski said in a statement. "He was in constant pursuit of doing something special and there will never be a greater warrior in our sport. I had the amazing honor of coaching Kobe in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and I will always remember how much he cherished representing his country in a first-class manner playing the game he so loved.
"The game of basketball is better today because of Kobe, and he deserves eternal appreciation for that. This is a devastating loss, made even more tragic by the passing of his daughter, Gianna, and all others on board. The entire Krzyzewski family is saddened as we genuinely loved and admired Kobe. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Vanessa, their daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and the families of those involved.”
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who was on the Team USA staff with Krzyzewski, said in a statement: “Kobe Bryant was not only one of the greatest basketball players ever, he was also the hardest-working player I’ve ever been around. I was so fortunate to have known him and coached him with Team USA. Our thoughts and our prayers are with his wife, Vanessa, and the Bryant family.”
Villanova head coach Jay Wright called Bryant "the consummate Philadelphia basketball player -- tough, committed, a competitive legend and an all-time champion. He was a proud father, husband, and a good man who will continue to be the example of excellence for generations to come! Our prayers go out to his family.”
Former Penn and Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said he most admired Bryant’s work ethic. "I would hear people who knew him well talk of how he would work out on given days. Everything he did, from lifting weights to his preparation by himself to practice to taking care of his body, went into making him such a phenomenal player and such a phenomenal competitor.