Jan. 26 marks the four-year anniversary of the death of Philly-born NBA legend Kobe Bryant. It was this past Friday four years ago that Kobe and his daughter Gianna were among nine people who lost their lives in a tragic helicopter accident.
In memoriam of the anniversary of their death, we have looked into the life Kobe led here in Philadelphia, as well as the love the city held for him. Bryant was born Aug. 23, 1978, in Philadelphia where his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant spent the first four years of his basketball career as a 76er (from 1975-1979). At six years old, Kobe’s family moved to Italy where his dad played for several teams.
Several years later, Kobe returned to Philly and attended Lower Merion Highschool in Ardmore, where he played from 1992-1996. Although he quickly became a starter for the Aces upon arriving in Lower Merion, it took some time for the team to get on its feet as they ended 4-20 Bryant’s first season. But Bryant and the Aces would hold a 77- 13 record in his next three years on the team. His junior year, Bryant dominated the high school basketball scene. It was in this season that he averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, according to Penn Live.
He ended the year being named Pennsylvania Player of the Year. His senior year, Bryant averaged 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals, and 3.8 blocked shots per game. The start of the season, the Aces were 1-3, but won 30 straight games from there and ended the 1995-96 season with a record of 31-3. Since 1943, the Lower Merion Aces had not won a state championship. That all changed in Bryant’s 1996 senior season.
On March 23, 1996, a crowd of thousands gathered in front of Hersheypark Arena while hundreds more watched the game on television to see Lower Merion go head-to-head with Erie Cathedral Prep. The Aces took the PIAA Class 4A title game with a score of 48-43, with Bryant scoring 17 of the game’s points. His senior year, Bryant was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, the Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year, a USA Today All-USA First Team player, and a McDonald’s All-American. He left high school basketball with a state record of 2,883 points, five championships and one regular-season MVP award. In 2002, Lower Merion retired Bryant’s #33 jersey.
In 2010, Bryant donated $411,000 to Lower Merion, and the school rebuilt the gym and named it in the beloved alum’s honor – The Kobe Bryant Gymnasium. Despite offers from top colleges including schools such as Villanova and Duke, Bryant decided to go straight to the NBA after high school.
In the 1996 NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th overall pick. They then traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for center Vlade Divac. As he never left the Lakers throughout his entire 20-year career, Bryant developed a complicated relationship with his hometown Philadelphia. Bryant and the Lakers defeated Iverson and the 76ers 4-1 in the 2001 NBA Finals and, after winning the All-Star Game MVP in 2002, Bryant was booed loudly by the Philly crowd. However, in his last game in Philadelphia on Dec. 1, 2015, fans gave Kobe a standing ovation while proudly chanting his name.
On January 26, 2020, Bryant and his daughter Gianna, along with seven others, including 14-year-old Alyssa Altobelli and 13-year-old Payton Chester, died in a helicopter accident in the Calabasas area northwest of Los Angeles. Philadelphia mourned the loss of the local legend. Nearly a week after his death, Bryant was honored at his former high school where around 1,600 people, including former high school teammates, showed up for the tribute in the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium. A memorial was built in front of Lower Merion where mourners left basketballs, flowers, letters, and jerseys.
The Ben Franklin Bridge, Center City, Boathouse Row, and the Wells Fargo Center, and countless other places shone brightly with purple lights in the week following Bryant’s death. A basketball court at the Tustin Playground in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood was established to pay tribute to Kobe and his daughter Gianna. It was completed with a beautiful mural of the father and daughter.
Kobe Bryant may have won five NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, eighteen All-Star selections, and four All-Star Game MVP awards as well as held countless other achievements with the Los Angeles Lakers, but in Philadelphia he will always been known as the local legend and high school basketball prodigy.