It doesn’t come up often, but whenever I mention having graduated Lower Merion High School in 1996, about half the time the other person will ask, “With Kobe?” The other half of the time, I volunteer that info. The follow-up conversation usually covers that I really didn’t know him very well, but that LA Laker Kobe Bryant was always a nice person, and that, yes, he really was that good — even in high school.
On Sunday, news broke that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.
I would have looked through my senior yearbook on Sunday, but I sold it on eBay in 2001 for $1,200 that I used for a new computer and a bass amp for my band.
I realize now that some mementos are probably worth holding onto.
Over the years, I’ve been happy to read about Kobe specifically citing Jeanne Mastriano, our 10th-grade English teacher, as a huge influence on him, because it was her sophomore class that we had together. Our class worked on a playwriting project with a class from Simon Gratz High and local theater professionals. Kobe was very comfortable performing. He worked as hard in that class as any other student despite knowing he didn’t have to, with the ability to go to any college he would have wanted to, or, as it turned out, straight into the NBA.
Kobe and I would exchange hellos or nods throughout high school and that was about it. In our senior year, I was the bulldog mascot for three or four games late in the season and I remember hugging him in the hot, itchy suit at half-court after a game. As senior year basketball season went on, students like me, who had never taken much interest in sports, filled the stands. It was Kobe madness, and I was all in. We all were. I had to get a picture with his date, singer Brandy, at the prom.
When I was an editorial assistant at the Daily News, I wrote a story of my limited history with Kobe during the Sixers/Lakers 2001 NBA Finals. I used to think that if Kobe saw me walking down the street, he would probably recognize me but not know my name. Years later, when I wrote the Daily News gossip column, my friend Andy texted me while he was shooting video with Kobe to ask if he should mention me. I said sure, go ahead, but I don’t think he’ll remember. Andy said Kobe made a joke, wondering if he should be careful what he could say in front of him, suggesting he was aware I wrote the gossip column. That was nice to hear.
My daughter, who is almost 9, was aware of the crash and had seen some news reports on Sunday. She’d been with my mom earlier in the day, who mentioned I had gone to school with Kobe. At bedtime, Piper asked me if I was friends with Kobe. I told her I didn’t know him very well, and I mentioned about being the bulldog mascot. She laughed because we both love actual bulldogs. When I left her room as she fell asleep, I started to cry.
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It surprised me at first, and then it didn’t. I wasn’t crying because I had lost a loved one. Kobe and I were not friends. The reason I was crying then was because I was thankful that I got to tuck in my daughter and kiss her good night, and sorry the kid from my English class couldn’t.
Dan Gross is a public relations professional and former Daily News columnist. @DanGross215