There was a meeting with the team, one player missing. Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer had a preseason message for everyone else. This freshman, Kobe Bryant — he’d be starting.
“Super, super skinny — he wasn’t nearly as tall,’’ said Matt Snider, then a junior. “Only 6-1.”
Snider doesn’t remember anybody fazed by this news from the coach. If the kid was good, let him start. The kid was good.
“You could tell right away, this kid was going to go pro,’’ Snider said. “Like after two practices. It was weird.”
Bryant’s death Sunday hit Snider as hard as the rest of the world. Harder when you considered what Bryant had done personally for Snider’s family. He’ll get to that.
Snider must have been the only other Aces player who went pro. His real game was football — he ended up in the NFL for a few seasons. Asked about which NFL player he saw who might compare to Bryant’s competitiveness, Snider said quickly came up with Brett Favre, who had the locker next to him for a couple of seasons in Green Bay.
“I’ve never seen a freshman with more confidence,’’ Snider said of Kobe. “He had it. Skinny, undersized. We were all going through puberty. He knew that this was his thing. He was going to be the man.”
Bryant’s big high school successes came after Snider graduated. Jeremy Treatman, who had covered Bryant and Lower Merion for newspapers, television and radio — the first mention of Kobe in the Inquirer was in a Treatman team preview when Bryant was a freshman — joined Downer’s Lower Merion staff in 1995. His responsibilities were basically twofold, Treatman said: to handle the media “and watch over Kobe.”
“Getting him on and off a bus sounds like an easy job, but it wasn’t,’’ Treatman said, and it got harder as Bryant’s senior season went on, remembering the long ticket lines, hundreds of people in them, and all those shut out from the district semis and finals against Coatesville and Chester.
By the state tournament, Treatman said, he saw things he’d never seen before or since, opposing players stopping in the postgame handshake line for a photo or an autograph. Lower Merion swept through it.
“I think he was an outstanding teammate,’’ Treatman said. “He got the best out of the others. Those kids didn’t understand a state championship was possible. Kobe instilled that in them just as much as the coaches did.”
And the fabled Kobe work ethic? Already in place.
“Never took a play off, never took a drill off,’’ Treatman said. “He won every drill for four years, won every race.”
Jealousies? Nah, wasn’t like that.
“They loved playing with him,’’ Treatman said. “They were playing with this great player headed for the NBA, and they all knew it.”
Bryant became a demanding NBA teammate. Not so much at Lower Merion?
“I didn’t say he wasn’t demanding,’’ Treatman said. “He was demanding, but in a good way.”
Maybe his most endearing trait in those days — he could take coaching.
“He would never, ever question Gregg Downer,’’ Treatman said. “Just an incredible teammate who supported his coach.”
Doug Young, a Kobe teammate, talked about how it’s hard to string words together right now, how Kobe’s evolution was remarkable, in that he was still “the same old Kobe” when they all got together, yet he had set this “incredible bar of learning. He wanted to grow, and he wanted us to grow.” Young spoke of how Bryant had returned to spend time with Lower Merion’s team and in those times it was obvious that he had “truly transcended sports.”
Snider can always tell people he was co-MVP of the hoops team with Kobe Bryant, when he was a senior and Kobe was a sophomore. “I was a 6-2 center — the only reason I started, I was strong, could rebound, put it back in. I had a terrible shot and couldn’t dribble worth anything.”
Snider now is a personal trainer in San Diego. Sunday happened to be his birthday. Now, it’s the day he’ll remember for the death of a teammate whose generosity touched Snider.
Snider’s younger brother, in Bryant’s class at Lower Merion, had been diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer about 2 ½ years ago. Snider set up a Go Fund Me account and raised $30,000 from friends and family. Matt knew he was friends with Kobe’s sisters on Facebook, so he messaged one of them, asking if it was possible to get in touch with Kobe, not saying why.
They must have known why, Snider said.
“About 30 minutes later, I got a phone call from an L.A. number,’’ Snider said. “It was Kobe’s business partner or business manager. … He said, ‘Listen, Kobe knows all about your brother. He remembers him. He wants to match what you’ve raised.' ”
So $30,000 was wired immediately. One condition: Nobody was to know.