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GROLLER: Column on Lower Merion's Kobe Bryant in 1996 couldn't have been more wrong

KEITH GROLLER
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 1996, file photo Kobe Bryant dunks the ball at his Lower Merion, Pa., high school gym during a practice. Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, died in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)

Those who have my followed my predictions on high school sports over the years know I am often wrong; so wrong that I’ve had coaches beg me to pick the other team.

But perhaps I was never more wrong than I was March 18, 1996.

That’s the day I wrote a Morning Call column with the headline “Turning pro could be a mistake for Lower Merion’s Bryant.”

In that column, I wrote that going straight from high school to the NBA would be a mistake for the athlete who was the most famous high school player in the country and winner of the Gatorade Player of the Year award.

I conceded that Bryant was a man among boys in the PIAA playoffs. I saw it firsthand two days earlier when Lower Merion ended Stroudsburg’s dream season in the 4A quarterfinals at Pottsville.

He scored 36 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had five blocks in the Aces’ 71-54 win to advance to the Eastern final.

He was impressive on the floor and in a crowded Lower Merion locker room that day.

The Aces were getting as much media attention as the 76ers, and Bryant handled the microphones and tape recorders with the poise and professionalism of a 10-year NBA vet.

He was ready for the NBA in that sense, but I wondered if his still-developing body could handle the grind of an 82-game season and the vast expectations that would be placed on him.

Kevin Garnett had made a similar jump and was doing fine, but I wrote: “Bryant lacks the physical maturity and strength of Garnett to be able to come into the NBA and make a major impact.”

I thought he needed a year, maybe two, of seasoning — whether it was in the ACC, Big Ten, Big East or any major conference — to make that leap into the pros.

To say I’d like to have that column back is an understatement.

What I didn’t know as I met in him in that cramped Martz Hall locker room was that Bryant possessed drive, passion and a sense of determination like few professional athletes.

If he wasn’t ready for the NBA that day in Pottsville, he was going to make sure he would be, and soon.

The one quote I used from him in the story after Lower Merion beat Stroudsburg was revealing. Bryant was never content and never going to settle for mediocrity.

“I guess I feel pretty good about my performance, but I always feel I can improve my game, whether I score 40, 50 or whatever,” he said.

His work ethic and desire to improve may have been unrivaled in NBA history, and you sensed he wasn’t going to stop achieving at the highest level possible in his post-NBA career either, which makes Sunday’s helicopter crash all the more heartbreaking.

Losing to a legend: When Stroudsburg lost at Martz Hall in the PIAA 4A quarterfinals, Mounties coach Shawn Thornton wasn’t thinking about how his Mountain Valley Conference and District 11 champs lost to a player who would one day become one of the greatest in NBA history.

Thornton left Pottsville thinking that had starting center, 1,000-point scorer and future Rider University player Ken Lacey not been battling a stomach virus, his team might have had a chance to pull off a major upset and make it Bryant’s last high school game.

As it was, Stroudsburg was still within single digits in the fourth quarter when Bryant took it to another level.

“We tried to simplify our strategy that day,” Thornton said. “We decided we weren’t going to hold him down. We concentrated on stopping the other guys. We put one guy on him, Emmet Donnelly, who had come from Ireland, was tough as nails. We just told Emmet to not let Kobe get past him. If you watch the film, Kobe didn’t get around Emmet Donnelly one time. But he shot over him and rebounded over him.”

Bryant was 12 for 25 from the field, 11 for 11 at the line and just refused to allow his team to lose a week before the state finals in Hershey.

“That game exemplified what always made Kobe special ... he didn’t take any plays off,” Thornton said. “He was active on both ends of the floor. He gave help defense on a lot of people and had a long reach and great leaping ability. He was a 6-foot-7 guy playing like a 6-foot-10 guy. But the big thing is he didn’t take any plays off.”

Thornton said he never could have predicted that just three games after Bryant played Stroudsburg, he would playing for the Lakers.

“We knew we had just played a pro, but it wasn’t an immediate thought that we just played a guy who would be one of the greatest pros who ever lived,” he said. “He exemplified that day two things that stayed with him: a will to win and a level of class that you don’t always see. He lived his life that way.”

Thornton, now an assistant coach at East Stroudsburg University, stayed extremely close to the 1996 team. He became a wedding officiant and got to marry three members of that team; whenever they’re together, the conversation goes back to that Saturday afternoon in Pottsville.

They always will take with them two championships, the 26-5 record and the deepest run of any team in program history. But they have a badge of honor in knowing that they might have been state champs had they not run into one of the game’s all-time greats.

In another postgame comment made that day, Bryant said he wasn’t going to rush into a decision about his future.

“I really don’t think about it much unless people ask me,” he said of his college/pro decision. “I just think about going to class, playing basketball and hanging out with my friends. People forget I’m a high school senior and this is the best time of my life.”

What a life it turned it out to be.