It’s 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25, the day after the memorial ceremony for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at Staples Center. I am on board a cross-country flight back to Philadelphia, racing home to coach my Lower Merion Aces in a playoff game at 7:30 p.m. It is the first time in 30 years of coaching that I have missed four practices and not watched one second of film on our opponent. My dedicated assistant coaches have been in contact with me and have been preparing the guys for the game. They will be ready to play, but truthfully, my mind is elsewhere. I am still thinking about the day before.

For a basketball junkie like myself, looking around Staples and seeing the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili was a dream come true. But the purpose of the gathering was my worst nightmare. Kobe and Gianna and seven other beautiful lives are gone. I have been struggling to process my new reality.

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer and Sixers great Julius Erving were on hand for Bryant's final game in Philadelphia in 2015.
Courtesy of Gregg Downer
Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer and Sixers great Julius Erving were on hand for Bryant's final game in Philadelphia in 2015.

I have seen many amazing things in sports throughout my life. I was at the Superdome for Jordan’s game-winner for the 1982 NCAA title. I was at the Spectrum when a 20-year-old Magic went for 42 and 15 to knock out my beloved Sixers in the NBA Finals. I was in Houston when Kris Jenkins’ shot-heard-around-the-world won the national championship for my hometown Villanova Wildcats. I watched Tug McGraw strike out Willie Wilson on a four-inch black-and-white TV hidden under my desk during supervised study hall at Worcester Academy, then celebrated the Phillies’ first World Series victory while my dorm supervisor threw the TV into the trash.

When Mike Schmidt hit his 500th home run, my buddies and I sprinted onto Brigantine Beach for an impromptu celebration in the Atlantic Ocean. When little Mo Cheeks dunked at the Forum in 1983 to put a bow on the Sixers’ Game 4 Finals win, my friends and I danced in the streets and raced to the nearest Dairy Queen to celebrate with extra thick milkshakes. And when Dr. J made that wraparound, under-the-basket layup against the Lakers, I was dancing in the aisles at the Spectrum, certain that I had seen a basketball player become the first man to fly.

More recently, I sat in glorious disbelief for the gutsiest play call in the history of football as the “Philly Special” knocked out the big, bad Patriots to win the first Eagles Super Bowl of my lifetime. I celebrated by waking up my 4-year- old daughter to explain to her what happened, crying uncontrollably as I struggled to find the words.

But my favorite sports moments came during the 20 years of soaking up every second of my idol’s — my hero’s — Lakers career. My beloved Kobe Bryant.

For two decades, I kept West Coast time as Kobe ascended to greatness and perfected what he’d started at Lower Merion. I learned to get by on five hours of sleep while Kobe became the greatest champion and most feared competitor of his generation.

I saw Kobe’s air balls in Utah, his buzzer-beaters, his 81-point game, the rings and near misses. I witnessed his absolute greatness as a player. And I did so with immense pride, recalling the journey we took together to win a state title in Lower Merion, a journey in which he taught me how to win and pushed me to be the best coach I could be.

Downer did his best to hold back tears during the press conference he gave in late January, days after Bryant's death.
Michael Bryant / File Photograph
Downer did his best to hold back tears during the press conference he gave in late January, days after Bryant's death.

When asked by some stray reporter for the 50th time if I would ever have another Kobe Bryant, the answer was simple, and it will always be the same: absolutely no way.

The moments we spent together were even more special. I shot free throws with him at the old Forum before practices. I swam and ate a few meals with him at his house overlooking the Pacific. I traveled to games all over the country, including the Finals series against Indiana, Orlando, Boston, and, of course, Philly. We exchanged e-mails about strategy. I worked his basketball camps. I introduced him annually to current Aces players.

And in a private moment, deep in the halls of Lower Merion High School, he became one of the first to know a dream of mine was about to come true. My beautiful wife, Colleen, was pregnant. We stopped in front of Room 225 for an embrace I will never forget. He was so happy for me. And I was so happy he was there.

My father died, at 89, last fall. He also watched 20 years of Kobe’s play — 24, if you include high school — and it helped strengthen the bond between us. Dad would tape the late games and watch them in the morning. If we felt Kobe had an off night, we simply erased the DVR.

Every morning, when I called my dad, most conversations would start with "Did you see what Kobe did last night?” I can’t imagine Dad’s shock when Kobe entered heaven on Jan. 26. I hope they are buddies and watching old game tapes together.

The memorial at Staples was a Mount Rushmore of basketball experiences. If the premise had been different, if the celebration had been for lives present instead of lives past, it would have been the pinnacle of my career.

I’d been looking forward to that moment at next summer’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction. It would have been a joyous reunion and the moment of a basketball lifetime for a scrawny kid from Media, Pa., who never could have imagined he’d one day coach the NBA’s biggest and brightest star.

At the memorial ceremony, I hugged Kobe’s sisters and parents tight, and the tears never stopped. Vanessa’s speech was one of courage, resilience, and leadership. Although I don’t know her, I was so proud of her. Kobe would have loved her toughness and resolve and would have demanded she fight on for their three other daughters.

With the world hanging on her every word, Vanessa gave a beautiful, intimate remembrance of Kobe and Gianna. Diana Taurasi and Sabrina Ionescu symbolized Kobe’s immense pride and passion in being a #girldad and made it clear that Gianna was developing into another Mamba. They thought that she would one day be in the WNBA. This was not idle speculation. Gianna could have been whatever she wanted to be and had the perfect father to guide her dreams.

I knew before many that Kobe’s real dream was to be the next Michael Jordan. We talked about it often as he developed from age 13 to 17, and you could clearly see it in his mannerisms, his imitations. Michael was a huge part of his identity.

Jordan’s speech was iconic, just like the man himself. With tears pouring down his face, the ever-so-stoic and prideful Jordan — he of the six championship rings Kobe so relentlessly chased — acknowledged that Kobe was his little brother and that Kobe was an amazing player. Kobe had to have been smiling ear to ear from the heavens as his hero validated his greatness and gave him his due. I hope Kobe and Gianna shared that incredible moment.

Most have no idea the work that went into Kobe’s chase of Michael’s acceptance and full respect. And I’m sure Kobe still wants M.J. one-on-one when he eventually joins him in heaven. Michael had better remember to bring his sneakers.

The speeches have ended, but for me the essential question still remains: How do I move forward from this horrific tragedy? I am a teacher, coach, father, and husband. I, like many, am not sure I have the answers right now.

Memories and flashbacks are everywhere at Lower Merion. Ten months each year, six days a week, I coach in the gym Kobe built. He can pop into my head at any moment. One morning, I spontaneously dropped and did 24 push ups for no apparent reason.

Kobe needs his high school coach to be strong. My current players need it. My students need it. I need to continue to affect players and students in a positive way, as I’ve been trying my best to do for 30 years. Kobe needs me to stand tall and sharpen my resolve. The ceremony helped, but I miss my hero immensely.

Bryant had a close relationship with Downer's daughter, Brynn.
Courtesy of Gregg Downer
Bryant had a close relationship with Downer's daughter, Brynn.

I have a beautiful 7-year old daughter named Brynn Riley. She is my pride and joy. Every time Kobe saw her, he picked her up and hugged her tight. We smiled ear to ear, as did Brynn. He held her like his own.

The “girl dad” movement Kobe ignited is something that now feels tangible to me. Maybe that’s the lasting connection to Kobe I need. Brynn comes to my games. She alternates between cheerleading and actually helping coach the team. She brings a clipboard. She comes to the film studies and all the pep talks. Her favorite activity after big wins is soaking her dad with water during locker-room parties. She recently made her first basket on a 10-foot hoop and completed two weeks of my summer basketball camp without complaint.

We swim together, have sleepovers by the fireplace, do gymnastics, soccer, and baseball together. And recently, our favorite activity is our own version of backyard NFL football: Eagles vs. Patriots. Much to our delight, the Eagles always win, even if her extra points are a little low off the back fence. We laugh together and cry together through all aspects of life.

Like any parent, I want Brynn to have a great, successful, healthy life. She can be whatever she wants to be, and I want more than anything else to be the girl dad who helps and guides her through the good and bad. Kobe’s love for his girls, his legacy as a father, strengthens me. The bond we shared in raising our daughters is the greatest gift of our relationship. It’s what inspires me most.

My players know I like to choose short phrases and collections of words to motivate and guide us during the season. I am going to focus on three words for my own motivation and peace of mind: courage, resilience, and love. Coaches need a game plan. For the first time since Jan. 26, I feel I have one.

Downer was Kobe Bryant's last basketball coach before Bryant entered the NBA in 1996.
Courtesy of Gregg Downer
Downer was Kobe Bryant's last basketball coach before Bryant entered the NBA in 1996.