Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How Kobe Bryant’s death brought Bobby McIlvaine — an athlete, a scholar, the friend I should’ve known better — back to life | Mike Sielski

In January, Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski received a video of Kobe Bryant's second game at Lower Merion High School. He posted it on Facebook. What followed was a miracle.

Bobby McIlvaine was Upper Dublin's starting shooting guard in 1992-93. The team won just three games, but he scored 16 points in the Flying Cardinals' second game, against Kobe Bryant and Lower Merion.
Bobby McIlvaine was Upper Dublin's starting shooting guard in 1992-93. The team won just three games, but he scored 16 points in the Flying Cardinals' second game, against Kobe Bryant and Lower Merion.Read morePhoto by Mike Sielski

On the day after Kobe Bryant died, a friend and high school classmate of mine sent me an email that carried the force of a punch I couldn’t see coming. “Thought you’d find this interesting,” Ben Relles wrote. Embedded in the message was a link to a 36-second video. I clicked on the link, then gasped.

On the right side of the video’s split-screen shot was Kobe, wearing a charcoal scoop-neck sweater, sitting at an expansive cherry desk, riveted to flickering images on a laptop. He was in the executive offices of YouTube, where Ben was working to find original content for the platform. Kobe had gone to the company’s Southern California headquarters in January 2018 to pitch a show based on Wizenard, a series of children’s books he had created that combined the themes of sports, fantasy, and magic. As it turned out, YouTube wasn’t funding children’s programming at the time and didn’t buy the show, but “it was genuinely one of the most impressive pitches I’ve heard,” Ben said. “He was incredibly passionate about the idea and clearly hands-on in every aspect of it.”

On the video’s left side were the images that had grabbed Kobe’s attention: footage of a high school basketball game from 1992, Lower Merion vs. my alma mater, Upper Dublin. Ben and I were seniors then. He was a backup forward on the team. I was an editor of the student newspaper and lacked the skills and athleticism to play organized ball beyond intramurals. Kobe Bryant was a freshman at Lower Merion. It was the second game of his high school career.

In those 36 seconds, an Upper Dublin player close to the camera, the No. 24 gigantic on the back of his red jersey, whipped a crosscourt pass to a teammate, Ari Greis, who caught the ball on the right wing, used a left-handed dribble to surge past Kobe, and banked in a floater from the lane. A family friend of Ben’s had filmed the game, and Ben, having kept the tape all these years and knowing he would be sitting down with Kobe, had converted the recording to a digital file. Then, once the YouTube meeting had ended, Ben had played the footage on the laptop, and one of his coworkers had taken care to capture Kobe’s reaction to it. There it all was, in cosmic juxtaposition. You could watch Kobe, as a 39-year-old, watch himself, as a 14-year-old, in real time.

“That is hilarious,” he said. “Great defense, Kob. … That’s horrible defense. … You can replay that all f---ing day. … Oh. My. God. … Nawwwww! … That’s funny. … We only won four games that year.”

Memory is a gift often hidden away within a box locked tight, and that game film was the gliding, turning key, allowing Kobe access to sights, sounds, places, and people made tactile and intimate again, allowing me the same. I posted the link on my Facebook page immediately. I posted it because Kobe was in it, but mostly because someone else was, too.

A brain who could play ball

God, look at him. You wouldn’t know it from that clip, from that pass that set up Kobe’s moment of embarrassment, but Bobby McIlvaine came to kill you on the basketball court. He was all bones and acute angles and stiletto elbows. He wasn’t dirty, but he let you know he was there. It was great if he was on your team, provided you played as hard as he did, but it was a b---- if he wasn’t or you didn’t.

When I met him, in ninth grade, he was as close to a fully formed adult as a 14-year-old kid could be. His parents were special-education teachers, and in retrospect, it’s clear how much his milieu shaped him. His father, Bob, had been a star running back at Springfield High School in Montgomery County, but the family bloodline didn’t account completely for Bobby’s rabid desire to win; something deeper seemed to drive him. He had been so competitive as a boy that Bob would cut short their one-on-one battles at the playground court down the street from the McIlvaines’ home in Oreland. Bobby was that intense, that much of a pain: Even his sports-hero dad had to walk away sometimes. During a backyard football game, his brother, Jeff, three years younger, might end up shoved face down into an ice puddle or tackled headfirst into the concrete stairs if he dared to beat Bobby for a touchdown.

His mother, Helen, had grown up in Chester, watching her town decay throughout the 1950s and ’60s amid redlining, riots, and block-busting. Through her, Bobby developed a less parochial, more empathetic view of the world, a recognition that his life and experiences in middle-class suburbia were not everyone’s. At a high school as diverse as Upper Dublin, where one’s group of friends could include white kids, black kids, Korean kids, Chinese kids, Eastern Indian kids, Protestant kids, Jewish kids, and Catholic kids (like Bobby and me), his upbringing and perspective enabled him to be comfortable among the jocks and the brains and everyone in between. He played varsity basketball and soccer, was one of the two top-ranked male students in our class, and aspired to become an author. He could speak with equal knowledge and insight about Charles Barkley and Geoffrey Chaucer. Rumor was, he already had begun writing a novel.

We were friends, though not particularly close. His competitiveness seemed cut with an edgy perfectionism — the insecurity found in every teenager cranked up to a higher level because Bobby expected more from himself than most teenagers do. That insecurity, to me, could manifest itself as arrogance — in my senior yearbook, Bobby scribbled in black ink a single word big enough to take up an entire page, COCKY — and it kept me at arm’s length. Still, it was impossible not to respect his intelligence, his ambition, his achievements, and not to seek or hope for his respect in return. He was someone against whom I measured myself, even in those aspects of our lives where I knew I couldn’t keep up with him.

Basketball was one. He was taller, stronger, more diligent about the sport’s fundamentals. He taught himself what he regarded as the single proper way to shoot a jump shot — keep your body ramrod straight, snap your wrist at the apex of your rise — and was so zealous about his technique that he insisted his friends follow it themselves. Once, during a pickup game, I hit a couple of long jumpers, and he whispered to me as we ran down the court, You’re playing well, Siel. Two conflicting reactions smacked me at once: Wow, it’s cool that Bobby, of all people, would say that and Who the hell does he think he is? My coach? My dad? Maybe he believed he had earned the right to say it. Maybe, in our stratified little social order, he had.

On Dec. 7, 1992, as part of its high school boys’ basketball preview package, The Inquirer published a pair of brief articles, one about Upper Dublin, one about Lower Merion. Both teams were green and were expected to struggle, but two players represented slivers of hope. In the Upper Dublin story, correspondent Joe Fite wrote: “Any one of 11 players … could end up starting, with senior Bob McIlvaine the only player with perhaps a better shot than most of grabbing one of the starting slots.” In the Lower Merion story, correspondent Jeremy Treatman wrote: “Remember this name: Kobe Bryant.”

The following week, the teams squared off in the consolation game of a four-team tournament at Lower Merion. Kobe scored 19 points in a 74-57 victory, and in the video, his recall of that season was perfect: The Aces won just three more times, finishing 4-20. Somehow, the 1992-93 Upper Dublin Flying Cardinals were worse. They won three games all season, though Jeff Huddleston regarded them as one of his most enjoyable teams during his 25-year tenure as the school’s head coach. “Nobody ever came late to practice,” he said. “I never had any worries with them, and Bobby was a great part of that team, a silent leader. He could shoot the ball, and in the huddle, he would look at me intently for what I was going to say. He would almost be shaking, excitedly shaking. He couldn’t wait to get going.”

The game against Lower Merion was one of Bobby’s best of the season. He scored 16 points, hitting two three-pointers, and after he began his freshman year at Princeton University, in the fall of 1993, the game grew into a family legend for the McIlvaines, a fond remember-when as Kobe, over time, became Kobe. Jeff scissored the box score out of The Inquirer and kept it. Bob had attended the game, had watched it from beginning to end, but he was unaware that someone had been recording it, and he himself took no photos and didn’t document the game in any manner. There were no smartphones then, of course, and the family didn’t own a video camera. “I wasn’t big on video,” Bob said. Helen once had borrowed a camcorder and toted it to one of Bobby’s summer-league games, but it had been so cumbersome to hoist the machine onto her shoulder and track the action that neither she nor Bob bothered to bring it again.

A better version of Bobby

When we graduated from high school, Bobby and I made no point of saying to each other, Let’s keep in touch. So we didn’t. We saw each other twice thereafter, and neither occasion offered us much of an opportunity to talk in depth. The first was in the winter of 1998, at a class reunion, and he revealed none of the granular details of his college years that I learned later.

How, for instance, during a pickup game his first week at Princeton, he caught an accidental but hellacious elbow in the mouth from his new roommate, Ken Senior, then kept up such aggressive defense that Ken asked himself, Why is he playing like this in a friendly game with guys he doesn’t know? How he majored in English but minored in African American studies, diving into courses taught by a powerhouse group of professors — Cornel West, Arnold Rampersad, Nell Irvin Painter, more — winning the department’s Ruth J. Simmons Thesis Prize for his analysis of the stereotypes that white authors fell into, the mistakes that they made, when depicting black characters. How he took up yo-yoing. How he earned an A in a dance elective by devising a routine in which his moves spelled the name of his girlfriend, V-A-N-E-S-S-A. How he told his college friends who were unfamiliar with Philadelphia-area high school basketball, Keep an eye on this kid Kobe. I played against him. He’s going to be great.

I saw Bobby again, and for the last time, on Sunday, April 15, 2001, at Easter Mass. There, with Bob, Helen, and Jeff, he looked sharp in a navy-blue blazer and light blue button-down, his brown hair closely cropped, his upper body having filled out with muscle. He appeared sure of himself, less anxious. Outside the church, we chatted about the 76ers, who were finishing their regular season and were about to begin an exhilarating run to the NBA Finals, where they lost in five games to Kobe and the Lakers.

Bobby lived in Battery Park and had been working in publishing, as a public-relations executive, since college — a whiz kid who had booked an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show for one of his writers and soon enough would be searching for a new mountain to climb. He didn’t mention that he also had taken a job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera House, just because he knew little about opera and wanted to learn more. He didn’t mention that he planned to accept a position in July with Merrill Lynch, as an assistant vice president of media relations. And he couldn’t possibly have known then, as we shook hands and said goodbye on that gorgeous spring morning, that this new position would require him to represent the company at a conference, held high inside the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on the gorgeous late-summer morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The ‘absence of his person’

The phone chain, linking our shared high school friends, finally snaked its way to me the day after the terrorist attacks. Bobby was dead. His body had been among the first identified at the site. Soon I was back at the same church to say goodbye to him again, this time two months before his 27th birthday, this time forever.

More than 1,200 people filled the pews. In one of the eulogies, Ken Senior described Bobby as “charming and engaging, special in the way that world leaders are special.” Those who had kept in touch with him told me that Bobby had developed into a terrific listener, someone you could talk to anytime about anything. As the pallbearers led the coffin away and the organist played “How Great Thou Art,” mourners mouthing the words through their tears, the music of the hymn rising into the night, I buried my face in my hands and bawled — not over the kid I had known, but over the young man I had failed to know.

In the days and months and years thereafter, there were attempts to memorialize Bobby, to console his family. Upper Dublin High School erected a bench with Bobby’s name etched on it, with a clear view of the school’s athletic fields, and every year on Sept. 11, one of our classmates and her father would return to campus, make themselves comfortable on Bobby’s bench, and crack open a couple of beers for a toast in his honor. The basketball team held a ceremony at the gymnasium, with a plaque. One of Bobby’s professors at Princeton, before sending the McIlvaines a handwritten note of condolence, dug up a copy of one of his term papers.

“Rereading it brought immediately into focus my recollections: his intelligent curiosity, his candor, and his infectious good humor,” Toni Morrison wrote. “You will never stop missing him, of course, but when your memories of his vivid life overtake the absence of his person — it will be better.”

The McIlvaines appreciated the kind words, the soft hands on their shoulders, but the gestures did little to help them heal. Bobby’s presence had loomed so large in their lives, and it continued to, because the horror of Sept. 11 seemed to have no end. How would you handle having millions of people bow their heads on your behalf every year, having the entire nation commemorate the day that you lost your son, your brother? One counselor put it this way to them: Hold a silver dollar in front of your eyes. The dollar represents Bobby and his death. It will be huge at first, then shrink as you get distance from the day, but it will always be there in your line of sight.

Helen and Bob kept a black-and-white photo of Bobby, her favorite photo of him, that showed him in a dark turtleneck, sitting forward at his desk, working on whatever project or vocation happened to be filling his mind and heart in that instant. “I’d always be behind him,” she said. “If I wanted to talk to Bobby, I had to talk to his back.” Jeff became a biology teacher and track coach at Sterling High School in Somerdale, N.J., and he and his wife, Kelly, had two boys and two girls — had a big family on purpose so that Bob and Helen could dote on grandchildren, so that the siblings always would have a web of support among themselves. But the silver dollar was fading to a speck in Jeff’s peripheral vision, so small that he couldn’t make out many of the details anymore. Bobby’s bearing, his tics and mannerisms, his vocal inflections in joy or anger — to Jeff and his parents, those moments when Bobby’s body and spirit had harmonized to make him Bobby were becoming wisps of vapor, too weak and fleeting to grab and hold. Jeff found himself wishing he could go back to Sept. 11, because he and his brother had gone out for drinks two nights earlier, because at least Bobby was fresh in his mind’s eye then.

Now all they had were photos of Bobby, still pictures, and they assumed they had collected every temporal piece of him there was to collect. They had no reason to believe that another memento, anything that might jog their memories, was still out there, unseen, and as the distance from Bobby’s death grew to five years, 10 years, 18, Jeff started to ask himself a haunting question. Am I remembering my brother and all his dimensions, flesh and blood and breath, or am I remembering a picture?

The connections between two young men

The game footage had surprised and overwhelmed me. It had sent Kobe and me hurtling deep into our pasts, but to different places for different reasons. He was seeing himself anew, as the prodigy he no longer was. I was seeing a friend who had influenced me and others in ways I had begun to appreciate only after he was gone. In Kobe and Bobby, I was seeing two young men whose similarities were obvious — both so driven and inquisitive and raw, their interests so varied — but only after the passage of time, only after I had cause to connect them.

Jeff McIlvaine drew the parallel immediately. He had kept a photo of the Lower Merion-Upper Dublin box score on his phone, and when that helicopter crashed into that ravine in Calabasas on Jan. 26, the perspective that had taken so long for him and Helen and Bob to gain swept over him in a wave.

“When Bobby died, it was hard to think, ‘I feel bad for him that he doesn’t get to do all the things he wanted to do,’ ” Jeff said. “You’re so overcome by his loss, that he’s not in your life anymore. But when Kobe died, that was the emotion I was feeling: I’m not just sad that he’s gone. I’m sad that someone like that, who worked so hard to set up his life a certain way, was gone.”

On the day after Kobe Bryant died, Pat Brady, a friend and high school classmate of Jeff’s, logged on to Facebook. The video of Kobe and Bobby, trailing a string of delighted comments and heart emojis from fellow Upper Dublin alumni, appeared on his feed. He copied the link, then called Jeff, who was coaching at an indoor track meet in Toms River. Jeff — standing on the infield, his attention on the meet, the whole place loud — didn’t answer until Pat dialed him a third time.

“Dude,” Jeff said, “I’m at a meet.”

“Look at the text I sent you,” Pat replied.

The text was the link. For 20 minutes, Jeff remained frozen on that infield … except for his hands, which trembled as he held his phone. There was no meet, no sound, nothing but that video. He played it over and over, all the little things that he feared he had forgotten about his brother rushing back to him. “I was elated. I was completely elated,” he said. “It was like Christmas morning. I didn’t have any sad feelings. I had only happy feelings.”

He sent the video to Helen, and she and Bob saw their son again, for the first time in more than 18 years. “It was like he was still alive,” Helen said, “almost like he was going to walk through the door later with his gym bag.” Then Jeff sent it to Ken Senior and Bobby’s circle of friends from Princeton. “I got chills,” Ken said. “It was incredible. It was not something I experience on a regular basis. I’m not confronted with a moving Bobby. That was more meaningful than seeing a young Kobe Bryant.”

A few days later, Jeff e-mailed me to ask if there was more video available from the Lower Merion-Upper Dublin game. I suggested that he reach out to Ben Relles, who had preserved that precious 36-second, 27-year-old piece of footage. On Feb. 11, he did.

Hey Ben,

I can't tell you what a thrill that video was for me and my family. We don't have any video of Bobby, so seeing him in live action was emotional and very therapeutic.

Later that day, Ben wrote back.

Hey Jeff,

Great to hear from you! I do believe there’s about 15 minutes of that game that needs to come off an old VHS tape. Will get right back to you on that. I think about Bobby all the time. He was such a great guy.

Ben did not have 15 minutes of that game, but he did have five. He saved the clip as a multimedia file and forwarded it to Jeff. Though he hadn’t known that the McIlvaines had no video of Bobby, Ben regretted that he hadn’t sent them the footage years earlier. “It feels like everyday moments are captured on video constantly now,” he said, “and maybe we’re taking their value for granted.”

One family doesn’t. Bob McIlvaine recently met several of his high school buddies for lunch, and the day before the get-together, he looked forward to cueing up the video and passing his phone around the table. “I can’t wait to tell them the story,” he said. “I tell it to everyone.” Helen has heard from distant friends who had seen the video on Facebook, people she hadn’t spoken to in years, and the conversations are warm and sweet. Jeff’s oldest child, Bobby, 11 years old, now has seen his namesake, the uncle he heard stories about but never met, play basketball.

Early in that longer, five-minute excerpt from the game, Kobe drives into the lane and scores. Kobe pulls up for two. Kobe frees himself on an inbounds play and rattles in a wide-open shot from the left baseline. It seems a highlight reel of Kobe and Kobe alone. But then 90 seconds in, Bobby throws that pass to set up the basket that started Kobe cursing and snickering at himself. And two minutes later, the Upper Dublin players take off on a fast break, and someone finds Bobby on the left wing. He catches the pass in rhythm, releases the ball at just the right time, at the peak of his jump, and swishes a three-pointer. He will never miss again. Out of death had come a renewal of memory and love. Out of tragedy had come a miracle.