For Matt O’Connor, there was no contradiction in terms: Kobe Bryant was both a larger-than-life figure and a regular guy.
For O’Connor as well as many other current and former Lower Merion High School athletes, that was the most cherished aspect of the school’s most famous graduate: Bryant was both one-name international sports icon and forever a former Aces player.
“There’s nowhere you’re going to go where you’re wearing your Lower Merion gear where people don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s Kobe’s school,’ ” said O’Connor, a Lower Merion basketball standout in the class of 2019. “It just showed how much he cared about this community and how he took us along on the journey.”
O’Connor and other current and former Lower Merion basketball players gathered Monday in the school district’s administration building to discuss their memories of Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers star who died Sunday in a helicopter crash in southern California.
Bryant was a Lower Merion graduate, class of 1996. He led the Aces to their first state championship. The gymnasium at the school off Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore is named after him.
But while Bryant’s fame spread around the globe through a career in which he was an 18-time NBA All-Star and the fourth-highest scorer in NBA history, he remains renowned in Lower Merion for remembering his roots.
“His presence was always here," said Steve Meehan, a Lower Merion basketball player in the class of 2008. “He would come back and sit on our bench and cheer us on. He always came back. He never left the community.”
Ryan Brooks, a standout on Lower Merion’s 2006 state-championship team, recalled a telephone call from Bryant to the squad the night before the Aces played in the title game.
“I can’t repeat the language he was using, but he told us to put everything out there on the floor and go and represent Lower Merion to the fullest,” Brooks said. “You always had this goal of just making him proud, the community proud.”
Guy Stewart, a Lower Merion basketball player in the class of 1995, played three seasons with Bryant. Stewart was overcome with emotion while discussing Bryant’s impact on his life, and on the Lower Merion community.
“It’s such a huge loss for everybody,” Stewart said, his voice cracking. "It was bigger than basketball, deeper than basketball.
“We had so many good conversations. He was so funny and down to earth. That’s what I always told anybody who asked about him, ‘He was just a down-to-earth guy.’ ”
At Lower Merion High, there was a moment of silence Monday morning that lasted 33 seconds before the start of classes. Bryant wore No. 33 for the Aces.
James Simples, a senior on the current team, said Bryant’s passing would serve as an inspiration.
“It’s going to make us play harder,” Simples said.
Bridget McCann, a junior on the girls’ basketball team, said the current athletes would be more determined than ever to honor Bryant’s legacy.
“It will make us work a lot harder to embody ‘Mamba’ mentality and everything he stood for,” McCann said.
Lower Merion basketball coach Gregg Downer, who was Bryant’s coach during his four seasons with the Aces, issued a statement Monday night in which he called his former player his “hero.”
“It may seem odd for a grown man to admit it, but yesterday I lost my hero,” Downer said. “Never have I witnessed such passion, work ethic and intensity — such a unique and purposeful drive for greatness.”
Downer led Lower Merion to the state title during Bryant’s senior season. The coach vowed to continue to honor his former star player’s legacy.
“We will continue to seek your inspiration daily. ... We will never let your Aces Nation down,” Downer said.
Bryant soared across the basketball world. But in Lower Merion, they never forget that this Main Line town, this school and this basketball program were his launching pad.
“I remember I was a freshman and I showed up at the gym one day, sort of out of the blue, and Kobe Bryant was there practicing,” Meehan said. "I had heard the stories of Kobe getting here at 5:30 in the morning before school, and to show up as a freshman and see this person who had an NBA game later that day in our gym was an amazing inspiration.
“He instilled in all of us a sense of hard work, pride in who you are and where you’re from, and that you can dream big.”
Meehan said Bryant’s dedication to the school, the community and the basketball program always would be a source of pride.
“One of our coaches, Doug Young, said this yesterday, ‘Kobe was us, and we were him,’ ” Meehan said, his voice chocked with emotion.
Said Downer: “It’s not often in life you see pure greatness. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat to it for four years.”
O’Connor said the Lower Merion team took a trip to California in November 2018, before the start of last season. The Aces scrimmaged a few teams, did some sightseeing, and met Bryant at his offices.