There was this camp, top 50 players in the country. The way Donnie Carr remembers it, invitees were the top 30 rising seniors, plus top 10 juniors and top 10 sophomores. Donnie Carr, Roman Catholic High, Philadelphia, had made the cut. The camp run by the NBA Players Association was designed to highlight the best of the best, but also, Carr said, “for us to get a chance to know each other. The only thing they gave us was fans and pizza.”
Carr already knew Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion High, No. 3 in the class.
“Walking in, he hugged me," Carr said, and he never forgot what Kobe said next.
“He was like, ‘DC, you know you’re my guy, man. But I’m not coming out of my room until it’s time to play.’ “
Then Kobe explained why: “I’m leaving this camp as the No. 1 player in the country.”
Carr knew nothing about what Kobe did in his room, whether he was in there lifting weights, or meditating, or what. Just that Kobe stayed in there. Carr never saw him around. And when the camp was over, Bryant was the No. 1 player in the country.
Other stories floated through Carr’s brain Sunday, after he’d heard the news that Kobe Bryant had been killed. They’d had epic duels, and there were tales surrounding those duels. Tears flowed as he talked to others, including his boss, La Salle hoops coach Ashley Howard, since Carr is an Explorers assistant coach now, after his own great La Salle career.
Carr got to witness the evolution of Kobe Bryant, “the whole maturation,” as up close as it gets. This teenager his own age, just moved back from Italy, showing up at the Sonny Hill League, nothing too special beyond the name.
“He had two knee pads, bones still developing,’’ Carr said. “Yo, this guy is overhyped; they’re hyping him up because he’s Joe Bryant’s son.”
Then, Carr said, two years later, “Did you see what he just did?” Now, Carr says simply, “I was blessed to be able to compete against him. Honestly, just to see a person who had goals and aspirations, and willed his way into being one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time, to be part of that maturation.”
He was being asked about basketball specifics, but Carr said it all went “far deeper than basketball. I know that’s the sport that connected us.”
He knew Kobe’s mom, sisters, cousins. Kobe’s father had recruited Carr to La Salle.
“I’ve known these people since I was in eighth grade,” Carr said over the phone Sunday night. “It’s just a devastating loss, to his family, and the Philadelphia basketball community.”
And on the court …
“Like Kobe was the perfect basketball player, in my opinion,’’ Carr said. “The combination of heart, desire, competitive nature, talent. His heart was unmatched. His work ethic, unmatched. His skill, unmatched. His IQ, unmatched. He was the perfect basketball player. If you’re trying to program a basketball player — how can you put the right attributes into a perfect basketball player? — that was Kobe."
That early evolution, Carr made clear, was dramatic.
“His game transformed before our eyes,’’ Carr said.
» READ MORE: Kobe Bryant photos, before he became a legend
There was this game at Drexel, Roman vs. Lower Merion, that etched into history. Roman won the game. Carr outscored Kobe. But there’s more to it, Carr said. The previous summer, Roman and Lower Merion both played in a summer league at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School. Roman was loaded, higher-ranked nationally.
“Before the game, Kobe called me,’’ Carr said. “This is vintage Kobe Bryant.”
He was on the phone with his childhood sweetheart, Carr said, when a call beeped in. There was no caller ID then, but he clicked over.
“Yo, what’s up, man?”
“It’s Bean. It’s Kobe.”
After exchanging pleasantries, Bryant got to the point: Was Yah Davis going to be at the game?
Carr explains that Davis, a future St. Joseph’s star, had been at Roman the previous year, but he was switching to Frankford High. Carr knew he wouldn’t be there.
“My antenna is up,’’ Carr said of the call. “I know he’s fishing.”
Then Bryant moved in with more vintage Kobe.
“If you and Yah are going to be there, maybe we’re going to get it on,’’ Carr remembered Bryant saying to him. “But if it’s just you, I don’t know if it’s worth me coming to the game.”
That was the end of the conversation.
“I slammed the phone down — boom,’’ Carr said. “Forgot I was talking to my girlfriend.”
Carr said so many college coaches had come in for that summer game. John Lucas, then the 76ers coach, showed up. Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski were there. Carr had told the Roman assistant coaches about the conversation. Yeah, he’d be covering Kobe.
“We jumped out. I had 25 in the first half,’’ Carr said. “Kobe finished with four. I got the better of the half. I’m wired up.”
There were two halves.
“Kobe had 32 in the second half. He wound up with 36, 12 rebounds, 8 assists. I had 29 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists. They beat us by one.”
There was this one play …
“He was denying me in the second half,” Carr said. “He overplayed a passing lane. He tipped the ball.”
In Carr’s mind, two Roman teammates went after the ball, but Bryant tipped it away from them, “then he caught up to the ball. The other guys tried to steal it. He whipped it behind his back, then through his legs. He dunked with two hands, ferocious. Then he started screaming.”
Carr got the message of that scream.
“Like, I’m the best player, and it’s not even close,’’ Carr said.
There was another play that stuck with Carr, a crossover move Bryant hit him with. Carr always thought he could get lower than Bryant, except by the summer before their senior years, it was no longer true, he found out. The move “was almost like the move where [Allen] Iverson stepped on Tyronn Lue.”
Except Bryant wasn’t done. Carr went for the move, and Bryant made like Michael Jordan pulling up on Bryon Russell — “identical move. I’m going to stop him. He rolled crossover. The only difference, it was on the right side.”
“His dad would be talking to him in Italian during games,’’ Carr said. “I always remember [after that move] his dad was like, ‘Oh, yeah, son.’ ‘’
Lower Merion by one.
“I fell to the floor,’’ Carr said. “He came over and picked me up and hugged me, said, ‘It’s only a basketball game, man. I know I’ll see you again.’ Vintage Kobe.”
So the game at Drexel came up on the schedule.
“I remember so much pressure and anxiety, to win and play well,’’ Carr said. “It’s Roman and Lower Merion, and this goes on the record. I can’t have an off night.”
Carr remembers missing his first three or four shots, thinking, “I can’t let this guy embarrass me.” Nope, didn’t happen. Roman took this one. Carr even outscored Kobe, getting 34 points, to 30 for Bryant. A footnote to history.
“I tell people he became a master,’’ Carr said. “He just mastered the skills.”
No, the memories don’t make it all any easier.
“My heart just goes out,’’ Carr said. “Just devastating.”