Nancy Beatty’s first time officiating a Kobe Bryant game with Lower Merion High School came during a Christmas tournament in 1995, Bryant’s senior season.
Beatty, the first female referee in District 1, had plenty of experience officiating women’s college basketball.
Early in the game, Beatty’s whistle blew, and Bryant took exception.
“He goes, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’” Beatty said. “The next time down, I can’t remember, I may have called a foul against him, and afterward he comes up to me and he goes, ‘Yeah, you know what you’re doing.’"
Beatty had earned a future legend’s respect that day. Now, she’s one of the millions mourning Bryant’s death in a helicopter accident Sunday morning in California.
Beatty was watching the Pro Bowl broadcast in her Florida home with her husband, Jim Beatty — also a retired referee who called Bryant’s high school games — when a crawler on the TV screen broke the bad news to them.
The two retired officials, who met and married through the sport, spent the next few hours reminiscing about the NBA great and the Lower Merion star.
“When I heard that he died, it just tore my guts out,” Jim Beatty said in a phone interview on Monday. “That’s how special he was. Just unbelievable.”
The first time Jim saw Bryant play was during his junior season at Lower Merion. It didn’t take Beatty long to know he was in the company of a budding superstar.
“I said at the time that he will be another Michael Jordan,” Jim said. “That’s how good he was. ... He wanted the ball all the time. He knew he could score. He was that good.”
During Bryant’s junior year, Jim said, teams could slow him down by throwing multiple defenders at him. The eventual five-time NBA champion would still score 20-plus points with his talent and competitiveness, but there were ways to make it hard for him.
In Bryant’s senior season, the strategies of the year before became futile. Jim saw the Lower Merion star score 29 points in the second half of a playoff game against Norristown at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in 1995. He saw him take off from the foul line for a thunderous dunk at the Palestra that same year.
“When I had him as a junior, you could put a couple of guys on him and guard him,” Jim said. “When I had him as a senior, you could put three guys on him and you couldn’t guard him. That’s how good he was. He was awesome. ... They couldn’t touch him. He could go around them like they were standing still.”
Even though their first interaction was adversarial, Nancy Beatty said kindness was the biggest similarity between Bryant and another future NBA All-Star, Chester’s Jameer Nelson, when they were teenagers.
“Jameer and Kobe were the nicest, most polite guys that played basketball ever,” Nancy said. “They were just super, super human beings, and they were both great players.”
Nancy took great pride in her officiating but conceded that there were times she’d get wrapped up in disbelief watching Bryant on the court.