Everyone’s favorite time of year in Lower Merion is winter, more commonly known as basketball season. I was a freshman at LM, playing on the girls’ basketball team, when I first felt a personal connection to the NBA legend and international icon, Kobe Bryant.
I had long-awaited my opportunity to play in the gym that Kobe Bryant built, a similar narrative to most kids growing up in the school district. Bryant’s insurmountable legacy breathed life into Lower Merion High School. “Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat,” Head Coach Gregg Downer said in a school district statement following the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
Bryant’s untimely death has caused me to take another look back at my own time at Lower Merion High School, and how my experience was enriched by his legacy.
I remember fondly the chatter and excitement that would build before every basketball season. Talks of “Kobe” and his contributions to our community would rise again. Players, coaches, kids and adults alike in the community would cross their fingers in hopes that Bryant might fly out to appear at Maroon Madness, a school-wide event igniting the start of basketball season. This tradition revolved around basketball, the student body, the community and, in many ways, our most illustrious alumnus, Kobe Bryant. The Kobe Bryant Gymnasium would flood with spectators, many of them sporting a number 33 vintage jersey proudly.
Like most high school teams, my team took part in the yearly tradition of choosing a jersey to don for the season. Of course, there was a hierarchy in place. Seniors choose first, then juniors, sophomores and, finally, freshman. I strode into the equipment closet, narrowing my eyes to locate the remaining jerseys.
The pickings were slim, but as I scanned the room, I was stunned to see the number 33 laying draped across the lap of my coach, who held it up to me.
“This should fit,” she said, gesturing for me to take the uniform from her.
“Shouldn’t that number be retired?” I said, to which she replied that it was retired for the boys’ team, but not for the girls’. That season, I wore Kobe Bryant’s number on a jersey with his alma mater across my chest, in the gym he built; it was a humbling experience, to say the least.
His 2,883 points were displayed on a banner in the gym; his name was emblazoned above the entrance. A display case was lined with photographs, along with his sneakers and other memorabilia. Fans from near and far would travel to observe this display and the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, which is now a memorial site.
His athletic prowess was second to none, but his work ethic was what really floored me. Stories of Kobe’s work ethic were uttered all around us as players. The stories of Bryant showing up to the gym before five o’clock in the morning have become akin to folklore in the Lower Merion community. He practiced what he preached; his success was no accident. The tenacity, competitive spirit and generosity he exemplified made him not only a great player, but a revered philanthropist and role model in our community.
“Never have I witnessed such passion, work ethic and intensity — such a unique and purposeful drive for greatness,” said Bryant’s Lower Merion High School coach, Gregg Downer, in a statement on Monday. “He was our superman.” It’s impossible to quantify Kobe Bryant’s impact on the Lower Merion community and even harder to calculate the inspiration he has given to so many.
Kobe Bryant had an impenetrable mind, his “Mamba mentality” transcending basketball into arenas of filmmaking, writing and publishing. Kobe Bryant added an Oscar to his laundry list of accolades for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”, inspired by a poem he wrote with the same title.
Bryant also spent his time after the NBA supporting women’s sports, and he often could be spotted at WNBA games in addition to women’s collegiate basketball games, cultivating his daughter Gianna’s passion for the game. He wanted to make sure his Mambacita could live out a dream similar to his.
Bryant never limited himself to just basketball. He showed our community how to dream big and support the causes close to our hearts.
Every year while I was in high school, both the boys’ and girls’ varsity teams excitedly awaited the arrival of Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers. The shoes were customized specifically for our Lower Merion basketball teams and were never available for sale to the public. The arrival of these sneakers every year was proof that Kobe Bryant never forgot his roots and a reminder that everyone at the high school had ties with the late star.
Many people in the community had actually met him before. Sometimes it happened deliberately, like when the boys’ basketball team journeyed to his camps in California. Sometimes, it was a casual run in at the WaWa on Montgomery Avenue.
“Kobe had a huge impact on my life,” said Stephen Payne, a former standout on the boys’ basketball team and Lower Merion graduate, “Last fall when I got to meet Kobe Bryant, I told him about my story and how I had to face trials in my life. He encouraged me to always focus on the positives in my life and to stay focused on my dreams. This was a very powerful moment for me that I will never forget and will forever be grateful for.”
Bryant, at one point, was a high school student just like everyone else. He went to class and even learned from some of the same teachers and coaches that students at Lower Merion learn from today.
The boys’ basketball team has been the community’s pride and joy since Kobe Bryant rekindled their success, leading the team to a state championship in 1996 — its first since 1943. Bryant’s impact is enduring and his mentality serves as an inspiration to all that knew and admired him. “The Mamba mentality is a constant pursuit to try to be better today than you were yesterday,” said Payne.
The Lower Merion community has lost a beloved figure this week, but we have not forgotten him. Kobe Bryant’s winning spirit and larger than life personality has carried and will continue to carry a legacy of inspiration in his hometown.