As basketball fans the world over mourn the death of Kobe Bryant, many in the Philadelphia area remember him as one of our own. Here’s a timeline of Kobe Bryant’s rise from standout player at Lower Merion High to an NBA icon.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a La Salle University alum who was playing forward for the 76ers, and his wife Pamela welcomed Kobe Bean Bryant into the world. He was the youngest of three children and the only boy.
On Aug. 24, the Daily News’ SportsPeople column and The Inquirer’s Sports/People column announced JellyBean’s new jellybean, but listed him as “Cobie."
After Joe Bryant played eight seasons in the NBA, the family followed him to Italy, where "JellyBean” played eight more years. Kobe lived in small Italian towns from first grade to the middle of eighth grade. When they returned to the United States, Kobe enrolled at Lower Merion High School.
The first time Kobe’s actual name was mentioned in either the Daily News or The Inquirer was in an Inquirer basketball preview from December 1992. He was an incoming freshman, and he was mentioned twice.
In a preview of the Central League, The Inquirer said the loss of Lower Merion’s best player, Garry Kelly, was offset by the arrival of a talented young prospect.
“Kelly is playing at a junior college in Maryland, but the Aces appear to have come up with another blossoming marquee player in Kobe Bryant, son of Joe 'Jellybean’ Bryant, the former La Salle All-American.”
He was mentioned a second time in a breakdown of Lower Merion’s team with a more decisive pronouncement:
“Remember this name: Kobe Bryant. The 6-4, 14-year-old freshman and son of Joe Bryant, a former star at La Salle, will not only play on the varsity, he will start. ‘He’s a very talented player," Downer said. “He has the ability to do everything well, and he has phenomenal range on his jumper.’”
As a sophomore in 1993-94, Kobe averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds per game.
In The Inquirer’s first profile of Bryant, the Inquirer wrote:
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By his junior season in 1994-95, Kobe Bryant was considered the best basketball player in Delaware County, where The Inquirer said "his excellence has resulted not only from his physical talents, but also from an all-encompassing love of the game.
His junior season, he led the Aces to its first Central League championship in nearly 20 years. The junior scored a career-high 42 points last night and the Aces won, 76-70, to capture their first league title in boys' basketball since the 1977-78 season.
The team lost in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, four wins short of a state title. Bryant, whom The Inquirer named its all-area player of the year, gave an emotional speech after the game to his teammates.
The game was over, the tears had subsided, and the Lower Merion players were about to join hands for the last time in a memorable season.
But Kobe Bryant had one more thing to say, one more thing to tell his teammates after scoring 33 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a 64-59 overtime loss to Hazleton in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs on March 18.
"Right then, Kobe broke down and apologized to his teammates for not pulling us through," coach Gregg Downer said. "It was revealing. He hates to lose. He cares for his teammates. He cares very much about his performance."
Read the full story here: https://www.inquirer.com/news/kobe-bryant-lower-merion-archives-player-of-the-year-20200126.html
By his senior season, the No. 1 question was: Will Kobe go to college, or join the NBA?
During his time in high school, Bryant trained with the Philadelphia 76ers. John Lucas, then the club’s head coach and general manager, would rate draft prospects based on how they performed against Bryant in one-on-one match-ups. Bob Ford details how Lucas became so impressed with Bryant that he would have taken the prep star first overall in the 1996 NBA Draft. Lucas, though, was fired before the draft and the 76ers chose Allen Iverson.
But before leaving for the NBA, Bryant guided Lower Merion to a state championship.
In March 1996, Lower Merion beat Erie Cathedral Prep, 48-43, for the state Class AAAA title at Hershey Park Arena. It was the school’s first state championship since 1943.
When he graduated from Lower Merion, Bryant opted to forgo college, and declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Before leaving for the NBA, he attended his senior prom in May 1996, and his prom date was R&B singer Brandy.
He was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets, and then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. In the 1996-97 season, he was the second-youngest player in NBA history. He would go on to become the youngest All-Star in NBA history in his second season.
In the years after the draft, Bryant’s reputation in Philadelphia had taken a dramatic shift. Instead of being a beloved hometown hero, he became a figure Philly fans loved to hate.
Most can trace the hate back to his “cut their hearts out” comment during the 2001 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Sixers.
After Game 3 in South Philadelphia, Bryant was on his way to the interview room when someone suggested he go back to LA. Bryant's infamous response was, "We're going to cut your hearts out Wednesday." The Lakers would go on to clinch the championship in Game 5, held in Bryant's hometown.
Years later, reflecting on that comment, Bryant said, “If anything, they should understand where I was coming from. That’s Philadelphia. If I was playing in Philadelphia and I said that about going to L.A, they’d have loved it.”
But they didn’t. When he returned the following year for the 2002 All-Star Game, Bryant was booed virtually every time he touched the ball. He would score 31 points and hoist the MVP trophy with a smile as the jeers were heaped upon him.
When he wasn’t being booed by Sixers fans, Bryant often got a warm reception, including at his alma mater.
In a 2016 retrospective, Mike Jensen interviewed the athletes who played with and against Bryant in high school. Bryant had not only mesmerized teammates, fans and opponents, but he had built a reputation as a ruthless competitor and trash-talker.
“If you were on the court with Kobe, you have a story,” Jensen wrote.
“It’s actually just a fun thing to be able to tell your kids,” said Larry Johnson, a couple of years ahead of Bryant at Central League rival Penncrest.
What's to tell them?
“You played against one of the best who ever played,” he said.
The school that he led to the state championship now plays in the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium.
At the gym dedication ceremony in December 2010, Bryant told a crowd of nearly 4,000, “This is where I came from. This is where I grew up. I didn’t go to college. This is my university. This is where my memories lie.”