My Article about LM High Retiring Kobe’s Number

Main Line Times         Thursday 31 January 2002

Lower Merion retires Kobe Bryant’s No. 33

By: Bruce Adams and David Block

Kobe Bryant, who went directly from Lower Merion High School to NBA stardom, had his LM jersey number 33 retired Saturday night at a special ceremony held at the school.

Ardmore – Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant, who went directly from Lower Merion High School to the NBA in 1996, was honored by the Aces at a special ceremony Saturday night. In front of a nostalgia-filled Lower Merion gymnasium holding 1,500 attendees, the Aces retired Bryant’s number, 33. Before Bryant entered the filled-to-capacity Lower Merion gym, an unannounced guest – the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal – walked into the gym and was greeted by an explosion of cheers. O’Neal, followed by Laker teammates Rick Fox, Mark Madsen, Devean George, Samaki Walker and Brian Walker, settled into third-row seats assembled on the gymnasium floor.

About 100 athletes from the Lower Merion School District led the procession introducing Bryant, with 9-year-old Rachel Newell and 11-year-old Alec Weiss dribbling basketballs at the head of the procession. LM students Monica Sciaky and Casey Alexander sang the National Anthem.

Many members of the 1996 Lower Merion PIAA Class AAAA state championship boys’ basketball team were present Saturday night. When center Brendan Pettit was introduced by L.M. school superintendent David Magill, O’Neal stood up, and Magill pointed to him and jokingly said, “Mr. O’Neal, I know your superintendent,” and the crowd roared.

Kobe said, “It’s always good to come home. Usually, I visit high school whenever we [the Lakers] play the Sixers. I walk by the gym, see if everything smells the same. In the hallway, before the start of [Lower

Merion] games, that’s when we used to pump each other up in the huddle, I used to take in the scent [in the hall] and it would always get me going.

“I had a good time here. It was a very enjoyable time for me. Many of you went on to college, went on to a university, I didn’t, so Lower Merion is the closest thing to (an alma mater) for me.  Lower Merion will always be a part of me, will always be in my heart.

“When I was (at Lower Merion), Ridley used to be the (Central League) champion. Ridley used to win every year. Then we finally kicked their butt, and now we’re on a nice little roll (five of the last six Central League titles), and I’m happy to see that.

“My fondest [high school basketball] memory was playing in the Palestra against Chester, a team nobody thought we could beat. We wound up winning the game [on the way to the state title]. We had a slogan my senior year: ‘Refuse to lose.'”

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, who has coached the Aces for a dozen years, started the ball rolling on a Bryant retirement ceremony last October.  Downer talked to L.M. schools superintendent David Magill about it, who thought it was a good idea, and in turn they spoke to L.M. athletic director Tom McGovern and L.M. principal Jack Maher. Originally, the ceremony was planned for either Jan. 26 or the NBA all-star weekend in Philadelphia Feb. 8-10. Downer’s apartment – a short distance from Lower Merion High School – is filled with mementos and pictures from

Bryant’s years with the Aces. During Kobe’s freshman year (Downer’s third), the Aces were 6-18. But in the next three seasons they went 77-14, including 31-3 in 1996, the season the Aces won the PIAA Class AAAA state championship.

“Kobe was the best high school player I have ever seen,” Downer told the audience Saturday. “He’s the hardest-working, most dedicated athlete I have ever been associated with – someone who never took a single short cut. He’s a gentleman, a class act, a person who always made time for children. He accommodated the many demands placed on him with dignity, grace and kindness.

“Ten years ago, Kobe was a six-foot, skinny eighth-grader at Bala Cynwyd Middle School, constantly dribbling through the streets of Wynnewood. Kobe and his ball were absolutely inseparable. He would dribble through the streets, and imitate his childhood idol, Magic Johnson.

“When I met Kobe at that time I was astounded by his charm, his savvy and his single-minded sense of direction. His work ethic at Lower Merion was legendary – 6 a.m. workouts; weight-training sessions; one-on-one workouts with Sixers’ players; and at the age of 15, his first one-on-one victory against his father, ‘Jellybean’ Joe Bryant; four years of never losing one sprint in practice; an absolute intolerance of mediocrity.

“After practice, I’d rebound for him and he would have to make 10 shots in a row from various places on the court. It didn’t matter if it took a half hour, an hour or longer, Kobe wasn’t leaving until the task was done. He would come to school at 6 a.m. to practice, even if it was a snow day. I feel honored to have a small fingerprint on Kobe’s development.”

Jermaine Griffin, who was co-captain of the 1996 L.M. squad, added to the lighthearted tone of the evening when he said, “I’m glad I had the privilege of playing with Kobe. You all know he’s a great dribbler, great

shooter, he can grab rebounds, but the thing I like most about him were his passing abilities. Three guys would commit to him, I’d stay on the block, he’d dribble through two people, and I’d wave my hands and say, ‘Kobe, I’m open,’ and he’d make his shot.

“The next time he came down, there were four people on him, he went through two of them, went over another, and I’d stay on the block and say, ‘Kobe, I’m open,’ and he would jump over and dunk on the [fourth] kid.”

Griffin added, “There’s things that you might not see (written) about Kobe that I’ve seen in practice, and that a lot of his teammates now might see in practice – if I could sum it up in one word, it would be determination.

He had a relentless attitude. He just felt like there was nothing he couldn’t do.

“I remember when we were sophomores at his house watching the Chicago Bulls on TV, and Kobe would say, ‘If Michael Jordan was on me I’d do this and I’d do that.’ Four years later, what he said he would do, he did.”

Former teammates from the 1995-96 championship squad in attendance were Griffin; Phil Mellet, now a senior at Penn State; Robbie Schwartz, a University of Pittsburgh graduate; Pettit, a senior at Wesleyan University; Emory Dabney, currently at University of Pittsburgh; and Cary Walker, currently serving in the U. S. Army. Omar Hatcher, currently playing Division I basketball, was a member of the 1995-96 squad who was not able to attend. Kobe’s parents, Joe and Pam, were at the ceremony and maintain a residence in Lower Merion. Kobe’s wife Vanessa also was at the celebration.

L.M. athletic director Tom McGovern said, “Kobe was a good school citizen and a good scholar. In a sense, this [night] is as much a tribute to his parents Pam and Joe as it is to Kobe.” McGovern said, “In the spring of ’92, coach Downer came to me and said, ‘At the Bala Cynwyd Middle School is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen and I think he might even turn pro.’ I looked at Downer and wondered where he was coming from, could he be serious?

“The school was 100 years old and at the time (in ’92) only won four state championships. So to pick out an eighth-grader who was going to be that good, I wondered was he a nephew or a son I didn’t know Gregg had? It turned out that that kid was Kobe Bryant.

“Back in ’92 we didn’t think of Kobe Bryant, as Kobe Bryant, we thought of Kobe Bryant as Jellybean Joe Bryant’s son. Now, 10 years later we look at Joe and say, ‘That’s Kobe Bryant’s dad.'” McGovern recalled that people came as far away as New England and North Carolina to watch Kobe play: “The demand to see Kobe play was so great that ticket lines were incredibly long. We had to move the ticket sales out of the athletic office because the office was in an academic area and the long lines were disrupting hallway traffic. “By his senior year it wasn’t unusual to have to turn a few hundred people away at the door, causing traffic problems on Montgomery Ave and giving the Lower Merion police headaches.”

Magill said, “We even had a Kobe mailbox [at Lower Merion High School] to handle fan mail.”

Jeanne Mastriano, one of Kobe’s English teachers at Lower Merion, said, “In his senior year, Kobe’s speaking arts project was to develop an original story, and then to deliver that story to a group of four-year-olds. Kobe did a story about a boy who had dirty laundry that piled up until it turned alive and became a monster.

“The kids he was telling the story to came up to his knees, and the kids were backing off. Seeing their reaction, he immediately dropped to the floor, looked at them, reached out his arms, and said, ‘Come here.’

“And the kids mobbed him, and they weren’t even basketball fans. They loved Kobe. Why? Because he was enjoying himself, he loved what he was doing. As a teacher, I find that quiet joy, that playfulness, that delight [in a student] is a rare thing. He loved basketball as a kid in Italy, dribbling himself to sleep. It was all he wrote about [in class] as a sophomore.”

Jill Govberg, president of the L.M. board of school directors presented Bryant with a watch donated by Govberg Jewelers of Bala Cynwyd and Breitling USA. The watch was inscribed, “To Kobe, # 33, Always an Ace, L.M.H.S.”

Bryant also was presented with a Lower Merion shirt and hat, and a peace-and-unity pin.

At the end of the ceremony, a brief question-and-answer period followed.

L.M. basketball star Sarah Lowe asked Kobe, “What did you take from Lower Merion in order to excel in life and basketball?”

Kobe responded, “A work ethic. Coach Downer always kept me after practice, and we always worked on our game together {Both] he and my parents instilled [good] values in me, to work hard toward your dream – I think you know a little bit about that, you’ve been kicking butt here – I’ve heard about you, I’ve heard you’ve got a mad game.”

Later Kobe was asked how he handled Sixer fan hostility during last year’s NBA finals, and he responded, “You just concentrate on the fact that it’s just like any other road game. Even though you’re coming home and playing in Philadelphia you just focus on the fact that those boos are like playing in any arena.

“I didn’t avoid the hostility [during last year’s NBA finals in Philadelphia]. I just knew it was there and let them did all the booing, hooting and hollering that they wanted. It didn’t even bother me. I was excited to be home, but I didn’t make too much of a big deal about that because I had a job to do and that was to win the NBA championship.”

Kobe also gave some advice for high school basketball players trying to follow in his footsteps of going from high school straight to the NBA: “You’ve got to follow your heart. It doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not, but it’s a matter of, are you willing to do what it takes? If you come into the NBA and you’re ready, great. You still have a lot of work to do. But if you come into the NBA and you’re not ready, you’ve got twice as much work to do.

“For me, it came easy because I was willing to accept the fact that I might not do so well [at the beginning] so I did what I needed to do to succeed.”