Soon after Romeire Brown heard the news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday, he made a beeline for a spot he passes often: Lower Merion High School.
Brown, 29, laid a bouquet of daisies in Lakers purple and gold in honor of the 41-year-old basketball superstar, a native son and 1996 Lower Merion High grad. The gym at his alma mater is named Bryant Gymnasium.
“I pass here all the time. I always think to myself, ‘Wow, Kobe went here. One of the greats of all time came here,’” said Brown, who grew up in Lansdowne. “When I heard the news, I was just in a state of shock.”
Brown added his flowers to a growing memorial outside the Lower Merion High gym. Others placed basketballs, and some lit candles.
Like many, Brown felt proud of Bryant, proud of his ties to the region.
“He was just an all-round great character,” said Brown. “We lost another one of our own.”
Amy Buckman, the Lower Merion School District spokesperson, said the community was reeling from the news of Bryant’s death.
“Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat,” Buckman said, using the name of the Lower Merion High mascot. Buckman called Bryant “one of our most illustrious alumni."
Buckman said the district “will always be grateful for his ongoing generosity” to the district, and said the Lower Merion High basketball teams would memorialize Bryant in some yet-to-be-determined way.
She said Gregg Downer, Bryant’s high school coach, was “devastated” by the news of Bryant’s death, as was Jeanne Mastriano, the Lower Merion English teacher who fostered his love of writing.
Arnold Haynes grew up in Ardmore and knew Bryant from the neighborhood. He attended Harriton High School in Lower Merion, and was graduating as Bryant was entering Lower Merion as a freshman, but the two played pickup basketball together on local courts.
“He was obviously good enough to play with the older kids,” Haynes said. He recalled driving by Lower Merion High at 5:30 a.m. and seeing Bryant’s green Land Cruiser already parked outside the gym.
“You knew he was here practicing,” said Haynes. “The hard work ... you try to emulate that, and that’s not just basketball, that’s life. Just hard work, period.”
Haynes said he was with Bryant a few days after Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, then traded to the L.A. Lakers in 1996. They were celebrating at a club in Philadelphia when someone stepped on Bryant’s shoe. Someone shouted, “Hey, that’s Kobe Bryant!”
The person who stepped on Bryant’s shoe was unimpressed, saying, “It’s not like you’re Michael Jordan,” Haynes remembers. Haynes still laughs about that, and treasures a picture he has from that night.
Haynes gravitated toward the high school with his son, AJ, a junior at the school.
“He was more than just a basketball player,” AJ Haynes said. Bryant, he said, “was a guy who showed us the right mindset in life. It is really, really sad.”
Giorgio Imbiscuso, a 2017 graduate of Lower Merion High, brought flowers and a basketball to his alma mater after he heard the Bryant news. He left both outside the gym.
“A lot of children look up to him,” Imbiscuso said. “A lot of young adults look up to him — everyone, of all ages, looks up to him. I think it’s just a tragedy that he died from such a horrific accident.”
News of Bryant’s death caused ripples across the region.
Just this month, he bought out a showing of the film Just Mercy at the Regal UA Riverview Plaza in South Philadelphia. Bryant, on Twitter, hailed the “powerful film” and said “everyone should absorb its msg.”
Scott Charles, the trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, hailed Bryant not as a basketball star but as a person. A dozen years ago, Bryant reached out to Charles through a representative, saying he wanted to help a family affected by gun violence.
Without fanfare, without notifying the media, Bryant bought an accessible van for Chinika Perez, a young mother who lost her legs in a shooting. He brought Perez and her family to a Lakers-Sixers game, insisting there be no media or fanfare over his gift. He spent most of an hour talking to Perez.
“Personally, I will wonder how many people have a story like Chinika’s,” Charles wrote on Twitter. “They say that our legacy isn’t what we leave for people but what we leave with people. Something tells me Kobe’s legacy will be just fine.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said on Twitter that he was “heartbroken.”
“From local phenom to global superstar, Kobe’s journey was great, and his legacy will continue to inspire for generations,” Kenney wrote. “His daughter was poised to carry the torch, and there are no words for this tragic loss. Praying for the Bryant family.”
Darrell L. Clarke, the City Council president, also expressed shock at Bryant’s death and admiration for his life.
“Even as Kobe soared into NBA superstardom, he never forgot his Philly roots,” Clarke wrote on Twitter.
Gov. Tom Wolf said the state was proud to be Bryant’s home for a time.
“At Lower Merion HS, he captured our hearts and the attention of the world,” Wolf wrote on Twitter. “He truly shined and brought pride to our state.”
Boyz II Men, whose members have been Bryant supporters since his high school days, sang a poignant tribute to the superstar at Sunday night’s Grammys, appearing with host Alicia Keys singing their hit “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday.”
Timothy Rub, head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a basketball fan, lamented Bryant’s loss.
“One of the game’s greatest scorers, Bryant was an artist on the basketball court and a player whose drive and intensity was rivaled in our time only by another legendary small forward, Michael Jordan," Rub said. "A tragic loss for Los Angeles and for Philadelphia.”
William Valerio, head of the Woodmere Art Museum, watched Bryant play.
“There was a confidence, ease, and strength that made him rise above all the other players on the court; a unique magic like a great dancer,” Valerio said. "Kobe was a local hero who gave of himself generously and represented the best of Philly in so many ways. It is tragic that we lost him just as he was embarking on a next phase of life that would have been powerfully meaningful.”
Zoe Strauss, an acclaimed local photographer, was also stunned by the news.
“It’s unbelievable," Strauss said. "It’s shocking in a sense that I can’t even believe.”
Bryant, Strauss said, “grew into a player who was a pleasure to watch, and he became an adult in a very public manner. He had a very public career and in a very significant shift, he became an adult.”
Strauss cited Bryant’s support of women’s sports — “not just as an advocate of women’s sports, but as someone who was more invested.” Bryant had four daughters, one of whom was a budding basketball talent who died in the crash along with him, and recently said he believed that there are women who can play in the NBA now.
Inside Wells Fargo Center, people who arrived to attend a Jeff Dunham show struggled with the news.
“Kobe’s dead,” Eric Hartford said, shaking his head, walking through the arena’s halls and looking up at the ceiling.
Hartford, 39, of West Philly, said he played against the basketball legend when he attended Welsh Valley Middle School in the 1990s.
“Some people you can just tell that they have it,” he said. “On the day of the NBA draft, we all knew he was going to go.”
Hartford, who works in housekeeping at Wells Fargo, was taking a nap when his sister woke him up with the news. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
“I’m at a loss for words. I don’t even want to be here right now,” he said as he prepared to begin his shift. “He’s my favorite player of all time. If you asked me who the best player in the game was, I would say Kobe."
Hartford was working at the arena Saturday night as LeBron James beat Bryant’s all-time scoring record against the Sixers.
“I can’t imagine what this must be like for LeBron right now,” he said. “To just pass your childhood idol, and then for him to pass away.”
Kelly Napolitano, 31, came to the arena to see the Dunham show, but she and her friends were unable to return to the show once they heard the news of Bryant’s death.
They stood in the halls, talking about Bryant’s legacy over drinks.
“You never know when your life could end,” Napolitano said. “He was a great athlete, a great dad.”
After the Dunham show, Kelley Covell and her family grappled with the news, not just of Bryant’s death but of his daughter’s.
“People like that, they’re bigger than life, and then they’re gone,” said Chip Covell, 60. “I don’t even follow basketball, and he was still bigger than life to me.”
Danielle Alexander said she’s still shocked by the news.
“It just hasn’t sunk in yet,” said the 29-year-old from Mount Airy. She remembers her younger brother imitating the basketball legend as they grew up.
“Every time he would shoot the ball, he’d yell, ‘Kobe!’”