WHEREVER Kobe Bryant has traveled in his illustrious career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he has remained anchored in spirit to Lower Merion High School. He still keeps in contact with his former coaches, teammates and even teachers at the school, which catapulted him not just to a state championship in 1996 but a pro career immediately upon receiving his diploma.

Because of the deep attachment Bryant still has for the school, Lower Merion dedicated the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium in a ceremony last night. In Philadelphia to play the Sixers tonight, Bryant was celebrated by a crowd of 2,000 people, an event that was preceded by a VIP reception and included a video presentation that highlighted his glory days with the Aces.

Bryant contributed toward to the new gym with a $411,000 donation to a fund that provided the school district with a series of inspirational, interactive and educational displays.

In a brief speech in which he admitted he was "nervous," Bryant said "this is about helping the next generation of Aces Nation." He added that since he did not attend college, "this is my university."

Bryant told the students in the crowd not to allow anything to stand in their way. "Demand greatness from yourself," he said. "I want to see greatness come out of this school."

Bryant added, "I am happy you guys like the new place."

Among the speakers was Lower Merion basketball coach Gregg Downer, who was a young coach when Bryant led the Aces to that 1996 state championship. The two have remained close through the years. Downer has had his former star give his team pep talks via speakerphone.

Downer said to Bryant last evening, "You spent half your life in California, but you have never forgotten about your Aces roots, including wearing Aces shorts under your Lakers shorts."

Downer praised Bryant for "dreaming big, working hard and taking no shortcuts."

Lakers teammate and friend Derek Fisher accompanied Bryant to the ceremony. Fisher told the crowd that "when Kobe is done playing, he is going to be in the discussion as the greatest player ever." He added that Bryant is still as driven as ever, that his "passion and hunger has not disappeared." *