Lower Merion remembers Kobe Bryant, the man who put the Pa. school on the basketball map

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Flowers, jerseys and imagery are left in remembrance to Kobe Bryant at a small memorial at the entrance of the Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Wynnewood, Pa. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
  • Kobe Bryant led Lower Merion to a Pennsylvania state title in 1996.
  • He finished his Lower Merion career with 2,883 points.
  • No other player in Lower Merion history has even reached the 2,000-point mark.
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)

I was playing basketball in the basement with my 6-year-old son when I heard the news.

It was unfathomable.

Once it was confirmed that Kobe Bryant was among the nine dead in a helicopter crash Sunday afternoon outside Los Angeles, I immediately thought of the time I met him. I was living in Ardmore, Montgomery County, in 2002 and was playing tennis with a friend at a nearby park when we saw him.

Kobe — he’s one of the few where a first name is all that’s needed — was talking to someone on the adjacent basketball court.

The NBA All-Star Game was in Philadelphia that night, and he was visiting his old neighborhood.

Lower Merion mourns its star: Kobe graduated from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore. On Sunday, the community came out to the high school to mourn its star.

Back in 2002, we approached Kobe and briefly spoke to him, and later that night, I covered the game at the First Union Center. Kobe had 31 points with five rebounds and five steals to lead the West to a 135-120 victory and earn one of his four All-Star game MVP awards.

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Naturally, Philly fans booed him as he received the trophy. After all, he was a Laker, and months earlier, he and Shaq beat Allen Iverson’s Sixers in the NBA Finals. (Kobe was showered with nothing but cheers in 2015 in his final game in Philly.)

I’ll never forget that day, and Lower Merion will never forget Kobe Bryant.

“Mr. Bryant is the person most identified with Lower Merion High School and Lower Merion School District throughout the world," Lower Merion director of school and community relations Amy Buckman said. “I know my own children have been traveling in foreign countries wearing their Lower Merion High School T-shirts or jackets and people all over the world have walked up to them and said, ‘Lower Merion. Kobe Bryant.’ He is how we are identified around the world, so this is a difficult time for our community.”

Standing in front of the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Buckman read a statement on behalf of the school district.

NBA legend Kobe Bryant, daughter among 9 killed in helicopter crash in California

“The Lower Merion School District community is deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing of one of our most illustrious alumni, Kobe Bryant. Mr. Bryant’s connection to Lower Merion High School where he played basketball prior to joining the NBA has raised the profile of our high school and our district throughout the world. Our school community will always be grateful for his ongoing generosity to his alma mater, including his dedication of our Kobe Bryant Gymnasium and his support of our girls and boys basketball teams.

"Gregg Downer coached Mr. Bryant from 1992 to 1996. In that time Mr. Bryant led his team to the 1996 state championship. Mr. Downer said he is completely shocked and devastated today upon hearing the news, adding that Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat.

"The entire Lower Merion School District community sends its deepest condolences to the entire Bryant family. Our basketball teams will no doubt pay tribute to Mr. Bryant as our season continues. But at this time, as a district, we will concentrate on supporting those in our community, including Coach Downer and English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, who Mr. Bryant credited for sparking his love of writing.”

"The Shrine:" Kobe attended the dedication of the gym, which opened in 2010 as part of the new building.

In the hallway outside the gym is what Buckman said is simply known as “The Shrine.” It holds numerous mementos from Kobe’s high school career, including pictures, sneakers and the state championship trophy.

Kobe designed sneakers for the school’s boys and girls basketball teams.

In the gym hangs a banner displaying the school’s 1,000-point club. Kobe finished his Lower Merion career with 2,883 points (no one else has reached 2,000).

Memorial at gym: A small memorial with a basketball, teddy bear and flowers sat outside the doors to the gym, and fans — local and otherwise — filtered in and out of the area.

Lana Greene of Villanova heard the news while headed to lunch.

“We were all devastated to hear the sad and shocking news," Greene said. “We were in a place where the community was all finding out at the exact same time. You saw people gasping. You saw people crying. It was a really sad, sad moment. ... People were just in shock.”

When Kobe’s heroics beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series in 2006, Michael Pope was hooked. Kobe’s acrobatic last-second layup sent the game to OT, and his fadeaway jumper at the buzzer won it. A native of Washington, D.C., Pope is a student at nearby St. Joe’s and arrived holding a Lower Merion Kobe Bryant jersey.

“That shot against Phoenix in the playoffs, that was kind of my first interaction with Kobe in basketball,” said Pope, who at the time was in grade school. “Ever since then, me and my dad, every time the Lakers would be in D.C. we’d be at every game. I’d be in my Kobe jersey even though I should be a Wizards fan. ... It just brought back a lot of memories today of my childhood, me and my dad.

“It’s emotional for me. The impact he had on me and so many other people — it’s just unbelievable," Pope said. "The world would stop when he was playing.”

Remembering Kobe: Rafael Reyes has been a Lakers fan since he was 4. Reyes wore a Kobe No. 24 Lakers jersey (Kobe also wore No. 8) and Lakers hat. The 30-year-old San Diego native lives in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia.

In the Lakers’ game Saturday against the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center, LeBron James passed Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, moving into third place.

“I watched Kobe my whole life," Reyes said. "I was able and blessed to watch one of his last games in L.A. before he retired. I drove by myself — no one else was able to come to that game with me — and I’m glad to be able to make that.

“Beyond basketball, I’ve learned so much about how to be a person — whether that’s just hard work or just be competitive — and I apply that to my everyday life, what I learned from Kobe. Even though I didn’t know him personally, I feel like I did just by watching him on TV every other day.

“I was just at my apartment and I just got done crying my eyes out. It’s terrible news.”