I’d just gotten to Philly 10 months before, and I didn’t understand all the hubbub.
Two high school kids were playing basketball. Blue-chip seniors, yeah, but it was my night off. So what?
So one of them was Kobe Bryant.
It was the first high school game I’d seen in Philly, and it was intense. Kobe and Lower Merion lost that night to Donnie Carr and Roman Catholic, a non-league game held at Drexel University. The result didn’t matter at all. Not to me.
Not after seeing this skinny, angular kid knife and slither and glide and handle like a third-year NBA shooting guard. The final score was 67-61, and Kobe had 30. Carr had 34. But none of that mattered, either. Everyone there had seen one of God’s perfect basketball creatures blossoming into the transcendent player he would become.
When I left that game I was glad that I went.
I’m really glad today.
Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was among the eight others who died, too. The world will be a lesser place for all of them, but fame amplifies tragedy.
Kobe Bryant became Kobe about the same time that I became a big-city sportswriter, though our trajectories were vastly unalike. His global fame for the next 20 years is matched by a precious handful: Tiger, certainly; maybe Serena; maybe LeBron. Among athletes with Philadelphia connections, in that period, he had no equal. He was bigger than Allen Iverson, and Eric Lindros, and Donovan McNabb. He was bigger than life. He knew it, even in high school. Everybody did.
LeBron passed Kobe on the all-time scoring list Saturday night in Philly, of all places. Because Kobe’s legacy here remains ... complicated. I’m not from here, so it took me years to understand why Philadelphia so resented Kobe’s indifference to it. I understand now: Having endured so many sporting disappointments for so many years, it pained the region to watch its most magnificent product consider it irrelevant.
» READ MORE: The moments that made Kobe Bryant Philly-famous
Kobe-and-Philly was complicated because Kobe made it so. He embraced his suburban roots but not the urban hub from which they sprang. He teased La Salle, one of the colleges I covered at the time. He told the Explorers (and Duke) that he might come there, where his NBA veteran father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, himself a former Sixer, was an on-again, off-again assistant coach, but Kobe was never serious about La Salle or college or any of it. That bred the sort of smoldering resentment only a Big 5 betrayal can foster.
But even that waned as Kobe ascended, and as he won.
Carr and his alma mater are so proud of his big night and his big win over Kobe that it’s in the second line of Carr’s bio in the La Salle University basketball media guide, where Carr is now an assistant coach. He scored 2,067 points in the next four years. By then, though, Kobe had audaciously declared for the NBA draft, forced his way out of Charlotte and to Los Angeles, scored 4,240 points, played in two All Star games, and won the first of his five titles.
The second, of course, came at the expense of Philadelphia.
In a hallway of the Sixers’ home arena, having just taken a 2-1 lead in 2001 NBA Finals, Kobe quipped, “We’re going to cut your hearts out” in Game Four. He affirmed his quip the next day at a news conference. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Then, he did the cutting. The series ended in five games, and Bryant became a Philly villain of Dallas Cowboy proportions. He tried to soften that image the past few years, and it worked. He was cheered when he played his last game in Philly, on Dec. 1, 2015. He wasn’t a returning hero; rather, an appreciated foe.
Kobe won five NBA titles, one MVP award and two Olympic gold medals, but the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, with the Redeem Team, underscored the magnitude of his power perhaps better than any other moment in his 20-year career.
It was Kobe who dived for a loose ball in the team’s first scrimmage, and the tone was set. Kobe who showed up before dawn for early work, and soon everyone else did, too. Kobe who laid out Spain’s Pau Gasol, his teammate on the Lakers, early in the tournament, the message being: Team USA is the bully here again.
And it was Kobe who the Chinese people wanted to see. Not LeBron, nor Dwyane Wade. Kobe was Michael Jackson in China, having rooted himself there with a charitable venture, a hip-hop video, commercial, and even a basketball-based reality TV show. At one point, his jersey sold more than Yao Ming’s. He is still revered. On Sunday, stores in Beijing sold out of Kobe Bryant gear.
I saw fans stake out the team hotel. I saw fans throng the entrances to the arena. I saw the few allowed to seek autographs after practices swarm to the spot where Kobe stopped behind the barriers. Jason Kidd walked past, unmolested.
Kidd was good.
Kobe was royalty.
He was not without his warts. He’d been cast as arrogant since his teens years, he’d manipulated the Lakers’ roster, and he’d commandeered the team’s controls. In 2008, he also still lived under the specter of a 2003 rape charge that was ultimately dismissed in 2004.
But the world didn’t really care; not the world that descended in Beijing. Michael Phelps swam to eight gold medals. Usain Bolt’s speed stole the headlines. But China loved Kobe best of all. China adores the beautiful.
“He is elegant, the way he plays,” one of my hosts explained. “It is so pleasant to watch him play.”
It always was.