It was spring 1996, and Kobe Bryant was a 17-year-old senior with a celebrity crush.
When he started telling friends that his date for their suburban high school prom was going to be Brandy, no one thought he could pull it off.
Sure, he was an all-American with a $2 million Adidas contract — a basketball star who’d recently announced he’d forego college and head straight to the NBA. But she was Brandy, a platinum artist and the star of a sitcom, so famous she needed only one name.
Bryant brought an international celebrity dressed in a Moschino gown to the Lower Merion prom at the Bellevue Hotel, creating a Hollywood moment for a city that just didn’t have them all that often.
Long before the age of Instagram and elaborate prom-posals, reporters lined the Center City sidewalk, and cameras pressed up against darkened limo windows to get a glimpse of the glamorous 17-year-olds.
And then the teens walked into prom like everyone else, away from the cameras and the noise.
As the world mourns Bryant’s death, this one evening when he brought a little dazzle to Philadelphia stands out. Here’s what that iconic night was like in the words of those who lived it.
The pre-prom buzz
Bryant was a rising star — but he still needed a date.
Classmate and friend
“We were in English class together, and he had one of those teen magazines and it had a picture of Brandy because she was on that show, Moesha. He showed me and he said, ‘I’m gonna bring this girl to prom.’ And I was like ‘Whatever, you’re crazy.’ Every day, he would be like ‘I’m bringing this girl to prom.’”
Biology teacher and class adviser
“She was a celebrity outside of LM, but at LM, he was already a star.”
Covered the prom for the Philadelphia Inquirer
“For lots of people, there was a sense that it was interesting that Kobe would even go to the prom. I mean, he was so well-known, he could have gone clubbing with Charles Barkley or someone.”
“He came home from the Essence Awards and said, ‘I met such a nice, beautiful, intelligent, sweet person.’” —To the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996
Kobe Bryant's mother, Pam, and father, Joe, during a 2010 second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Los Angeles, where their son played for the Lakers.
“He asked me to go to the prom with him, and since he was a nice guy … I asked my mom, and she said yes.” —To the New York Daily News in 1996
“I said I don’t know this guy. I had no idea who he was. And then Brandy said, ‘He’s a basketball player.’ And I said, ‘So?’” She added: “I liked that he had involved parents and he was doing well academically. He seemed to be a pretty good kid. He was levelheaded and grounded. And I said OK.” —To the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996
Kobe Bryant on the day he announced he was headed to the NBA, at Lower Merion High School, in April 1996.
“We had people calling the school, looking for information, wanting to know things about Kobe. We’d usually let the calls go unanswered, but at one point a reporter got through to my classroom on the phone when I was in the middle of a class, and they wanted to ask me, basically, if this whole thing was disruptive to my teaching!”
“We definitely thought it was gonna be interesting. Because it’s our prom, but then there’s, like, this famous singer-actress that was going to be attending with him.”
“It’s supposed to be everybody’s night. Now it’s not going to be a prom, it’s going to be this other thing 'cause Bran-dee (eye roll) is going to be there.” —To the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996
“I mean, OK, it’s Brandy and everything, but this is ridiculous! It’s not her fault, but we should be able to have our prom in peace. We just want to have our prom and get on with our lives.” —To The Inquirer in 1996
Classmate (and a former Daily News columnist)
“People were excited ... But people were a little more cool about it than you might expect.”
They were set to arrive at 8:30 p.m. on May 25, 1996, but they were late — quite late. When Bryant finally arrived to pick up Brandy, the couple stepped into a white stretch limo with Brandy’s publicist, photographer, and bodyguard. They drove to former Sixers coach John Lucas’ house to get Bryant’s teammate Jermaine Griffin and his date, the coach’s daughter, Tarvia. They made a few more stops to collect friends and snap photos before heading to the Bellevue.
Reporters were starting to wonder whether the couple would show when the limo finally pulled up to the historic hotel around 10 p.m. People Magazine, MTV News, and a pack of local journalists awaited.
“There was so much paparazzi and media in front of the Bellevue that people had to go in the side door... Before they arrived, there was this nervous anticipation, this electricity in the air.”
“I remember rolling up and the cameras were literally on the limo windows because they were blacked-out windows.”
“The parking drop-off at the Bellevue was very backed up because he had to get out, and then there was all this paparazzi and police and her bodyguards.”
Brandy stepped out of the limo in a champagne, boat-necked gown with a matching wrap draped over her arms; she carried a black clutch and wore her long hair braided and partially up. On her wrist was a white and green corsage. Bryant, in a tux sans tie, had a matching boutonniere. Brandy’s mother watched anxiously.
“What I remember is that Kobe and Brandy sort of made an entrance, with people with cameras yelling at them as they walked in. At the time, it felt very unusual and atypical and special.”
1 of 8
While some kids turned up their noses, others welcomed Bryant and his date as friends. Many asked Brandy for autographs and photos.
Stacy Moscotti Moore
“I was the photographer for the school newspaper, and they were like, ‘You need to get a picture of Kobe and Brandy together or don’t come back!’ So I was on assignment at my prom. … At some point when they came, everybody was looking at them and kind of staying away but definitely staring at them. But at some point, I just grabbed my camera and I was like, ‘Hi Kobe, hi Brandy, Stacy Moscotti’ — The Merionite was the name of our paper — ‘photographer with The Merionite, I need to get a photo,’ and I posed them — like, who am I? — ‘You look great, click, click, gorgeous dress, Brandy, OK, thank you!’”
“I enjoyed the prom, but definitely was aware of the necessity to get a photo for the school newspaper,” said Stacy Moscotti Moore, who graduated with Kobe Bryant and took this photo of him with R&B singer Brandy. She saved copies of the newspaper and the photo.
“Some of the parent chaperones had these big cameras there. I think some of them were more interested in getting pictures of Brandy and Kobe than of their own kids!”
“I think some of the kids saw it as an eye roll — our big night is being overshadowed by this event of Kobe bringing Brandy here. Whatever theme the prom had — and I don’t remember it — the theme ultimately became Kobe and Brandy. It ended up being the two of them. But I think for others it was like Prince Charming bringing Cinderella to the dance.”
Kobe Bryant wore a tux sans tie, and Brandy rocked a champagne Moschino gown. "Kobe and Brandy sort of made an entrance, with people, with cameras yelling at them as they walked in," said Jennifer Weiner, who wrote about the dance for The Inquirer. "At the time, it felt very unusual and atypical and special."
“Once they got past the press, people just treated it like, ‘Oh, hi, Brandy.’ It wasn’t a big spectacle. People were paying attention to them. But I’m not sure how exciting or vivid it was. It was all pretty low-key, like a normal prom.”
“We were all just pleasantly surprised that what we fantasized might happen really didn’t happen. Everyone was just doing their own thing and enjoying each other’s company. People definitely took pictures of the two of them, but it didn’t seem like the focus of the evening, at least from my group of friends.”
Courtesy Chad Wain
R&B singer Brandy, Kobe Bryant, and Audrey Price Gornish before Lower Merion High School’s prom in 1996.
“[Brandy] was the sweetest person I ever talked to. She told me about her hair, about her makeup, about her dress. … Her hair took eight hours to do. I was like, ‘You sat still for eight hours?’”
“I saw her in the bathroom. I came out and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love your dress!’ and she said ‘I’m really nervous’ because she didn’t go to her own prom and this was her first. … I’m reminding myself, like, ‘Don’t call her Moesha! Call her Brandy!’”
“I remember they both had these huge smiles and in the photograph … that I took, they have these huge, huge smiles, and they just look genuinely so happy … She seemed to be really enjoying just being amongst … regular high school kids for a night.”
“It was clear that a few of the other kids were trying to act very cool about it: ‘We’re not gonna stare and gawk and act like this is a big deal.’ In the end, I sort of wonder what they were really feeling, if they were annoyed that the prom had turned into this huge hoopla, or were they as starstruck as everybody else paying attention?”
Courtesy Dan Gross
Dan Gross, a classmate of Kobe Bryant's, poses for a photo with Brandy during the Lower Merion High School prom. “The prom wasn’t even that crowded, not a wild occasion," Gross, a former Daily News columnist, remembers. "Kobe and Brandy didn’t seem like they were dating. They were friendly with each other. I was annoying and asked if I could take a picture with her. She said 'yes.' It was very brief, but she was perfectly friendly."
“When they left, it was like someone had just popped a balloon. And it just dispersed. I’ve been to a lot of proms, and they all have a similar energy, where everyone feels beautiful. But it felt like the energy at that prom was just something stronger. And after they left, everyone kind of exhaled.”
The night didn’t end without a kiss.
“I pecked him twice. His lips were so soft.” —To the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996
Bryant and Brandy left the dance early, and headed for dinner in Atlantic City. The next morning, he invited friends to his hotel for breakfast. He was characteristically diplomatic, recalled friend Marc Weinberg, and said little about the prom or his famous date.
“That wasn’t him, to talk about something like that. The same way if you asked him about a game, he’d talk about how well everyone else on the team played. … Looking back, it was one of the times we realized, this guy’s gonna be a star.”
Bryant and Brandy remained friends, though Brandy has said they never dated. Four months after the prom, Bryant appeared in an episode of “Moesha,” playing a high school basketball star who received help on his SATs from Brandy’s character. Three years later, Bryant met his future wife, Vanessa. They married in 2001. In 2016, Brandy told reporters that she still had the dress and corsage she’d worn to the prom.
Today, a community grieving
Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash at the age of 41, alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people.
“It just doesn’t even seem real. He lived down the street from me, so we carpooled at the end of the day. He would do anything for you. He was just that good friend. It’s just disgusting. I can’t even wrap my head around this … Before this, we were really excited, because we thought he would come to our next reunion. We haven’t seen him since the five-year. In two or three years, we’ll have another.”
Courtesy Ashley Pietropaolo
Ashley Pietropaolo stands with Kobe Bryant, her high school friend, and Bryant's date, singer/ actress Brandy. "She showed up at our prom," Pietropaolo remembers, "and my jaw dropped."
“It’s just devastating in a way that I don’t think any of us really imagined. Because we’ve lost people, we’ve lost classmates, sadly, over the last 24 years, but Kobe seemed invincible and immortal and, like, untouchable. And so to lose him so early, as we’re all kind of starting our 40s, it’s a reminder of mortality. It’s a reminder that you never, ever know what’s gonna happen.”
“There are only a handful of teachers left at LM who knew him. My students today were very kind, because they could tell I was having a hard time. They lost Kobe, but I lost a student.”
“Everyone says the same thing: If you knew him, you loved him. Everyone loved him. I don’t think that guy had one enemy. Really. He was kind to every single person in that entire school. I don’t even follow basketball anymore. The Kobe I remember is 18 years old, six-foot-five, with just a big ear-to-ear smile, and that’s it. That’s the Kobe I will always know and remember.”