This article appeared in the March 29, 1995 edition of The Inquirer.
The game was over, the tears had subsided, and the Lower Merion players were about to join hands for the last time in a memorable season.
But Kobe Bryant had one more thing to say, one more thing to tell his teammates after scoring 33 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a 64-59 overtime loss to Hazleton in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs on March 18.
"Right then, Kobe broke down and apologized to his teammates for not pulling us through," coach Gregg Downer said. "It was revealing. He hates to lose. He cares for his teammates. He cares very much about his performance. "
Kobe Bryant, The Inquirer's boys' basketball player of the year in the Main Line and Delaware County area, is a phenomenon. The 6-foot-6 guard and forward averaged 31.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this season. He also averaged 5.2 assists, 3.8 blocked shots and 2.3 steals.
But statistics do not do justice to the junior who propelled Lower Merion to the Central League title, which it clinched when he scored 42 points in a 76-70 victory over Ridley, the six-time defending champion, on Feb. 6.
They do not tell the whole story of the player who led his team to the District 1 final, who carried the 26-5 Aces to the second round of the state playoffs, and who cried after scoring 33 points in their final game.
Bryant's teammates tell more of the story. Although they, too, were integral parts of a championship team, they had to stand in Bryant's shadow. They did so without complaining, which says something about them. It also says something about Bryant.
"Playing with Kobe makes you play better," senior guard Guy Stewart said. ''When he picks it up, he picks everybody else up, too. "
"It was unbelievable, playing with him," freshman guard Dan Pangrazio said. "I never saw a player like that. You just don't see guys in the eighth grade flying through the air and dunking the basketball. "
Bryant returns the respect to his teammates.
"We're brothers," Bryant said. "I want everybody to be happy. If I get them the ball, I know they'll come through. "
Opposing coaches know Bryant will come through, and they are powerless to stop him.
"We tried to hold him to 30 or 35," Strath Haven
coach Bruce Moore said after Bryant scored 40 in a 91-61 Lower Merion victory. ''Obviously, we weren't successful. "
The Lower Merion coaches know Bryant will come through in games, in the locker room and in practice.
"He does things in practice that are mind-boggling," Downer said. "The coaches look at each other and it's all you can do to suppress a smile. "
Bryant, 16, plays with a smile. He plays with exuberance. He plays with a creativity that transforms Lower Merion games from athletic events into art.
Natural ability is part of it. One moment, Bryant is
skying to block a shot. The next moment, he is dribbling between his legs as he brings the ball upcourt.
And then there is the dunk.
"My first intention always is to dunk the ball," Bryant said. "But if I have to change in midair and it comes off looking pretty, so be it. "
Bryant succeeds on more than natural ability, however. Fans may see him dunk and dribble and block shots. His coaches see him practice incessantly.
"He's the first guy at the gym and the last guy out of the gym," Downer said. "He has the God-given ability, but the thing that makes him special is his work ethic. "
Bryant gets that work ethic from his father. Joe Bryant played for the Philadelphia 76ers. He knows about being a high school and college star. He knows what it takes to make it at the highest level of the sport. He imparts his knowledge to his son, and his son listens.
"He always tells me to be the best I can be," Kobe Bryant said. "He tells me not to let other people set standards for me. He tells me to set standards for myself. "
Just to make sure those standards remain high, Joe Bryant sometimes teaches his son a few lessons in one-on-one skirmishes.
"Just last night at the dinner table, he told me it was about time he started beating me up in the post," Kobe Bryant said.
And if the younger Bryant gets a big head, he might not be allowed to sit at the dinner table.
"If I slip, my family is the first to let me know," he said.
He does not plan to slip next season. He wants to help the Aces win another Central League championship. He wants to help them win a district title.
He doesn't want to go out the way he did this year - with a loss in the state tournament.
"What is my dream ending?" he said. "I want to pay back all of the teams that beat us this year. I want to go out with a state championship. "
Don't bet against him. He will work as hard as he can work, will hone his game as much as he can hone it, before he starts his final year at Lower Merion.
He does not want to apologize again after a season-ending loss. Not that an apology was necessary in the first place.
“I played against everyone in high school - Rasheed Wallace, Felipe Lopez - and Kobe’s the best.” - Travar Johnson, Ridley center
“Without question, he’s the best I’ve seen.” - Tom Rayer, Marple Newtown coach
“You have to stand in awe. When he’s on top of his game, he owns the game.” - Dan Pangrazio, Lower Merion guard