With Sunday's retirement announcement, Kobe Bryant's upcoming visit will be the last time he comes to Philadelphia as a professional basketball player. It is a time of reflection for those who knew him when he played at Lower Merion, who watched him evolve from a talented 13-year-old boy to an NBA-ready 17-year-old man.
I was an assistant coach on the Lower Merion team for Kobe's junior and senior seasons, and I have wonderful memories of the kid that I first met as an 8th grader. That first encounter was at the Jewish Community Center on Haverford & City Line, and I recall a boy who was fascinated with his new-found ability to jump up and touch the rim. He did it about 50 times as he warmed up for a routine Saturday afternoon pickup game.
When the game started he played with a skill and savvy that belied his age. I was coaching at Wilmington College at the time, and thought that this skinny near 6-foot kid was about a junior in high school. It was the first of many times that Kobe would shock me when he told me in a barely audible whisper of a voice that he was 13 years old.
Three years later, and in large part for the chance to coach this prodigy, I found myself as an assistant coach to Gregg Downer at Lower Merion. Gregg had done a brilliant job in setting a blueprint for Kobe's high school career and Kobe and his father Joe had bought in entirely. The skinny kid had grown in size, strength and national stature and I was looking forward to coaching him for his last two years of high school.
People often ask what it was like to coach Kobe in high school. It was awesome. The biggest compliment I can give him is that he would have been one of my all-time favorite players even if he was a terrible basketball player. His love of the game and passion for improvement became trademarks of his legacy, and they were all on display every game, every practice and every drill at Lower Merion.
A four-win freshman season gave way to a .500 sophomore year. By Kobe's junior year, his reputation had grown and the expectations were high. We rode him to a 15-1 record in the Central League, 26-5 overall and into the second round of the state tournament.
The coaches would joke that he did something in practice every day that we had never seen before. We stacked the teams against him in drills, but he persisted. We sometimes changed the rules or the score in mid-drill to keep his team from dominating, and he while the drill was still going on he would be yelling and screaming that we were cheating or that we had the score wrong.
There is an oft-told story of him chasing 5-7 Robby Schwartz through the hallways after a Schwartz turnover cost Kobe's team a victory in a drill. That story has grown legs over the years, but is based on real events and is a great example of Kobe's competitive nature. If you were keeping score, Kobe was playing to win.
Chester High was our kryptonite, and a 27-point loss to them at Villanova in the District 1 championship in 1995 would fuel the fire of Kobe and his teammates until next year, his senior season. Kobe wasn't usually a loud or vocal leader - in a youthful and almost naïve way it was unimaginable to him that someone would not have complete focus or effort - but the mere mention of Chester would fire him up.
His occasional eruptions would always get the teams attention. Two come to mind and offer a rare trip to the psyche of the future superstar.
One was a hot summer night in July of 1995. We had just played Chester in the championship game of the Plymouth Whitemarsh summer league, and they had beaten us again. Unlike the previous season where we were overmatched by the Clippers, we had a good chance to win this game.
But we did not win, and Kobe was not happy about it. When the coaches were done speaking he addressed the team, loudly. His message, "I am not losing to these [expletives] again!" He told his teammates, still loudly and with plenty of uncharacteristically foul language, that they better get out and work their butts off and be ready to play when practice started in November.
(We wound up playing Chester twice in his senior season and we won both times. We beat them in the District 1 Championship game at Villanova, and we beat them in the state semifinals at the Palestra.)
The other eruption came after a game at the Beach Ball Classic, a Christmas tournament in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Kobe fouled out late in the game against a good team from Oklahoma called Jenks. We led by a few points when Kobe went to the bench, but proceeded to blow the lead and get manhandled in overtime.
Without our superstar, the Aces looked scared and played without poise. It was a good wakeup call for the team, who had been enjoying the benefits of playing with the the player who was now generally considered the best high school player in the country. Things like full outfits of gear from adidas and the trip to South Carolina were being taken for granted, and the team was not focused on individually improving. The loss dropped our record to 4-3.
Kobe exploded on the team in a voice that was louder and more angry than I had ever heard him. "You can't back down!" he said over and over. "You gotta step up and take it to them!" It may sound trite but his tone and language were so uncharacteristic that it got everyone's full attention.
It was the best wake up call the team could ever receive. Prior to that day they had looked at Kobe as a super talent, but now they started to see him for what he really was: a player whose incredible talent was exceeded by his work ethic, his passion and his irrepressible will to win.
That December game against Jenks would be the last high school game that the Aces would lose that season. We won 27 games in a row, culminating with a State Championship victory in Hershey.
The foundation for Kobe's superstardom was built in his time in the Philadelphia area. I was blessed to spend two years coaching him and his teammates, all of whom eventually took on Kobe's attitude that there is no room for second place. I have often said that Kobe is the most misunderstood professional athlete in the world. For all of the glitz and glamour of being a Laker and an NBA superstar, he is still the same kid I met at the JCC. He just wants his team to win.