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Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer reflects on his ‘hero,’ Kobe Bryant

Bryant's coach during all four of his seasons with the Aces found comfort in wearing his old star's warm-up jacket.

Lower Merion head basketball coach Gregg Downer wears Kobe Bryant's old No. 33 warm-up jacket during a news conference on Tuesday.. ... Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
by Phil Anastasia
Updated 
Jan. 28, 2020

The jacket hung in a closet for 24 years, a relic of a remarkable time, a memento of a magical athlete.

Lower Merion High School basketball coach Gregg Downer didn’t want to wear Kobe Bryant’s old No. 33 warm-up. He didn’t want to take it out of storage and put it on his back as a tribute to his most famous player.

But sitting behind microphones Tuesday, and struggling to explain his reaction to Bryant’s death, Downer found “strength” in the embrace of his former star’s attire.

“It means the world to be in a jacket like this,” Downer said. “There’s some sort of small connection between he and I with this legendary warm-up that he wore. Number 33. It gives me power. I feel great [to be wearing it.]”

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Downer, who coached Bryant during all four of the athlete’s years at Lower Merion, labored to maintain his composure at times during a group interview at the Lower Merion Administration Building.

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer tries to hold back tears after being asked how close he was to Kobe Bryant’s family. . ... Read more / File Photograph

On Monday night, Downer released a statement in which he referred to Bryant as his “hero.” The coach amplified his message in his first public comments since Bryant, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in California.

“I’m glad that word ‘hero’ is out there,” Downer said. "My heart hurts so bad. My insides hurt so bad. I realized I had lost my hero.

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“I’m so proud to have coached him. I was so proud every time I saw him. I never saw a human being seek excellence like him.”

» READ MORE: The day Kobe Bryant fulfilled a dying man’s wish | Marcus Hayes

Downer, who is in his 30th year as Lower Merion’s coach, remained close with Bryant after the player left the school to join the NBA. Downer worked Bryant’s basketball camp for years and met with him regularly when the Lakers played in Philadelphia or when Bryant returned to his alma mater in the NBA offseasons.

“We had a fantastic relationship built on love of winning, hatred of losing and, quite frankly, a love of one another,” Downer said.

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer with Kobe Bryant, his former player, before the Lakers met the 76ers in Game 5 of the 2001 NBA Finals. . ... Read moreCHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Before Tuesday night’s girls’ basketball game at Lower Merion, school principal Sean Hughes read a statement on behalf of the school community that was followed by 33 seconds of silence to mark the No. 33 Bryant wore at Lower Merion.

Downer recalled Bryant as a 14-year-old in the eighth grade, playing for a middle school in the Lower Merion School District. It was the first time the coach saw the future NBA superstar.

“I heard a lot of buzz about a 14-year-old in our middle school, so I went to watch one of his games,” Downer said. "They had a weird rule with that team: You had to pass the ball 'X’ amount of times or you got benched. That didn’t go too well. I wanted to see him play, and he kept getting benched.

"I saw him after that game and I say, ‘Hey, maybe you should come up and practice with our varsity. Maybe that would give me a better look at you.’

“Five minutes into that first varsity practice, I turned to my multiple assistant coaches and I said, ‘This kid is a pro.’ ”

» READ MORE: Philly-area dads who coach their daughters: ‘Many of us can relate to Kobe the father’

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In 1996, Bryant led Lower Merion to the state title, its first since 1943. Downer said Bryant broke his nose, diving for a loose ball and colliding with teammate Leo Stacy, during a practice before the state semifinals vs. Chester.

“For 48 hours, we didn’t know: ‘Would he play? Could he play? Would he wear a mask? How is he going to get through this game?’” Downer said. "He warmed up [before the game] with a mask. He didn’t like how it felt.

"We came back in one final conversation and he ripped the mask off, threw it against the wall and said, ‘Guys, let’s go to war. I’m not wearing this thing.’

“From that moment on, I knew we were going to win a state championship."

Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer (left) and assistant coach Doug Young, who played with Kobe Bryant at the school, discuss the legendary player who died Sunday. . ... Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Downer said he was in his kitchen Sunday afternoon when he received word of Bryant’s passing.

“For 3-5 minutes, we were praying it was a bad joke or a bad dream,” Downer said. “Then reality set in and I broke down in my kitchen.”

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» READ MORE: Kobe Bryant was a neighbor and a light to Lower Merion | Opinion

Downer hopes his current team, which is 13-4, would honor Bryant’s legacy with fierce play over the remainder of the season.

“When I tried to think about what Kobe Bryant would want to happen in a situation like this, I think he would want us to get back to the bouncing ball as quickly as possible,” Downer said. “We are getting back to the bouncing ball. We want to bounce the ball, we want to squeak our sneakers, and I told the kids, we want to compete like crazy.”

Gregg Downer at the news conference.MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Downer said the last couple of days involved “poor sleep, poor nutrition and a lot of tears.”

The coach said he has found strength in his memories of Bryant, in his pride at his former player’s world-wide fame and in the warmth of that silky, old jacket that hung in the closet since that championship season of 1996.

“We’re not sure what to do with this,” Downer said of Bryant’s old warm-up. "We had it in a closet for 24 years. I didn’t think its initial use would be for a day like today, but my hope and my dream would be it’s next stop should be Springfield, Massachusetts, the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“That’s where this jacket belongs.”

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Published 
Jan. 28, 2020
Born and raised in South Jersey, Phil Anastasia prefers standing on the sidelines at high school football games on Friday nights to sitting in the press box at Eagles games on Sunday afternoons. He’s a graduate of Rowan University with a degree in English.
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