By: David Block, Sportswriter August 17, 2000
“There’s a lot of things I miss about the (Lower Merion) area…(On the Main Line) I could ride around peacefully, go out to eat peacefully.” –
LOS ANGELES, CA – Former Lower Merion High School basketball star Kobe Bryant, who was a key figure in the Los Angeles Lakers’ recent NBA championship, said last week he often gets nostalgic for the Main Line.
“There’s a lot of things I miss about the area,” said Bryant. “I miss the high school – a lot of my high school buddies went to college. We still have a lot of memories. I keep up with them…(On the Main Line) I could ride around peacefully, go out to eat peacefully…I still go back to the high school sometimes.”
Yet, it has been two summers since Bryant returned to the Main Line. When asked if he could enjoy the same privacy in Los Angeles, he gave an emphatic “no.”
“Out here, it’s crazy,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere, you take it in stride. It’s part of the territory…Nothing you can do.”
When Lower Merion basketball coach Gregg Downer visited Bryant during the NBA finals, he saw that his former superstar had the Lower Merion basketball state championship medal hanging on the foot of his bed.
Although Bryant had come so far as a basketball player, he explained that the Lower Merion medal meant so much to him.
“It was an important year of my life,” said Bryant. “People said, ‘you’re not going to be able to win.’ The odds were against us. It was like us against the world. We were able to do it. We conquered a huge challenge
Downer explained that the first sparks were set in Bryant’s junior year when the Aces were eliminated in the playoffs. Afterwards, Bryant said to his team that he was going to miss the seniors next year, but there was “no way” Lower Merion would lose next season.
Bryant, who began playing basketball at age three, grew up with the game – his father is former NBA star Joe Bryant. But it wasn’t his father who developed Kobe’s passion for the game – that came from within the younger Bryant.
“He (my father) just gave me the option to play all kinds of sports, but I enjoyed basketball the most,” said Kobe.
The younger Bryant often played one on one basketball as a youngster, which he said fueled his competitive juices.
“It was ‘Mano a Mano.’ That definitely enhanced my competitive drive,” said Bryant.
By age 13, Kobe knew that he could one day play in the NBA. He experience some turning points along the way. He was finally able to beat his two older sisters, Sharia and Shaya, whom he regarded as excellent
Basketball players, and he could also beat his father. However, Bryant attributed his conviction to how he felt inside.
“It was more the attitude…It just felt like I was the best player, it felt like I had the most moves,” said Bryant.
In the summer of 1995, a couple of months before Bryant’s senior year at Lower Merion, he was given the opportunity to work out with the 76ers. The daughter of 76ers coach John Lucas was going to Lower Merion and she told her father about Kobe.
“He (Lucas) knew my father so he invited me to come down and play with (the 76ers),” said Kobe. “I really didn’t think about who I was playing against. I knew they were NBA players but (to me) it was just a chance
to prove to them that I was a good basketball player.”
In that session, the 76ers coaching staff taught Bryant some skills which he still uses today.
Comparing the 76ers workouts to those of Lower Merion, Kobe said the latter were tougher: “With the 76ers, it was just five on five scrimmages, but
At Lower Merion, we ran those suicide drills.”
When Bryant decided to go to the NBA and skip college, it became a big topic of discussion in the Delaware Valley. The fact that so many people were discussing Bryant’s decision had little if any effect on him.
“I didn’t really care (about it),” said Bryant. “The doubters bothered me a little bit, but I figured in the long run, I’d prove them wrong anyway…They’d shut up in the long run.”
Downer said, “A lot of these talk shows were saying that Kobe made a bad decision (in) going to the NBA and that he wasn’t going to make it, but none of those naysayers saw how excellent Kobe was. I worked with Kobe every day. He’d come in two hours before school started, even on snow days when the school would open late, just to practice. One of my assistant coaches got in the face of the WIP (Radio) talk show hosts who was criticizing Kobe and asked, ‘How many times did you actually see Kobe play?’ and the answer was ‘just once.’ These doubters didn’t know what they
were talking about.”
Among Bryant’s high school accomplishments was breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 40 year old southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring record of 2,359 points, with 2,883.
A week before Bryant’s debut NBA season of 1996-97, he broke his hand and had to miss a few weeks of action. In his first NBA game (Jan. 28, 1997) he scored 13 points and five assists.
Bryant was Slam Dunk champion and rookie all-star MVP in 1997, then became the youngest player to start an all-star game in 1998 when he was selected as a member of the Western Conference squad. Other honors Bryant has received include being named the 1999-2000 NBA All-Interview second team and being selected to the 1999/2000 NBA All-Defensive first team.
When Phil Jackson took over as the Lakers’ coach this past season, basketball fans noticed the rapport between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“Everyone knew (O’Neal) and I could work well together,” said Bryant. “It was just a matter of time. People need to realize that Shaq and I never really played together before. My first year, we didn’t play that much. The second year, I was still coming off the bench. The third year was the half season (due to the NBA strike), so this season was the first time we
(really) played together. Phil Jackson brought our playing to another level. He was a sharp coach.”
In game two of the NBA finals against the Indiana Pacers, Bryant sprained his ankle with 3:26 left in the first quarter. He missed the remainder of the game.
Even though it was difficult for him to walk, Bryant said that he was determined to play anyway, even if his ankle remained sprained.
In game four of the NBA finals, O’Neal fouled out and Bryant greatly contributed to the Lakers’ overtime win against Indiana, 120-118, netting 28 points.
After the game, O’Neal referred to Bryant as ‘the little big brother’ because although Bryant is only 6-feet-7, he scored some big baskets.
In game six of the finals, the Lakers clinched the championship with a 116-111 win. One memorable Bryant play was when Kobe made a great pass to
O’Neal, who scored with two defenders draped all over him.
Winning an NBA championship might satisfy some players, but Bryant wants more.
The last time Kobe was on the Main Line was two summers ago. “It was great being back,” said Bryant. “I got to ride around peacefully, I went back to the high school, and I could go out and eat peacefully. Out here (in Los Angeles), you can’t go anywhere. It’s crazy. You take it (in) stride. It comes with the territory.”
Bryant is involved with the record label, “Heads High Entertainment,” which was launched a few months ago.
“There’s a lot of young talent out there that needs to be discovered, that needs to be heard,” said Bryant. “It was an opportunity for me to help them so they can do something well for themselves.”
Bryant said he likes being a role model, but emphasizes that role models are not perfect: “The idea of a role model is if you do make a mistake people can look at you as an example and not make the same mistake.”