This past Thursday, Kobe Bryant had his high school gym at Lower Merion High dedicated and renamed in his honor. Lower Merion alumnus and sports journalism student at Penn State, Ben Goldberg-Morse was at the event and was kind enough to write up this piece for FB&G. Enjoy.
He receives a mixed welcome every time he steps onto the court in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, but at Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant is treated like royalty, like a rock star, and, most importantly, like family. Thunderous cheers and floor-shaking applause reverberated throughout the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium on Thursday night, as an estimated 4,000 fans fought through snow and poor driving conditions to show their support to the school’s most-decorated alum, as the brand-new facility was dedicated in his honor.
“For me, it’s really about helping the next generation of Aces Nation,” Bryant told the crowd, trying to explain the connection that keeps him coming back to his alma mater, in Ardmore, Pa., year after year. Each season when the Lakers come to town, Kobe makes an unheralded pilgrimage to his old stomping grounds, reconnecting with teachers, coaches and old friends. This visit, while his game was quiet (he injured his finger and played poorly, although his Lakers beat the 76ers 93-81 on Friday), his return to the school was anything but. Back in October, the five-time NBA champion donated $411,000 to the school district, although his continuing relationship with Lower Merion planted the seeds of this event long before that check was signed. “This is where, I came from, this is where I grew up,” he said. “I didn’t go to college, so this is my university. This is where all my memories lie.”
Laker teammates Derek Fisher, Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter were in attendance, as was Phillies MVP shortstop Jimmy Rollins. While the highlight videos of Bryant in his maroon and white Aces uniform elicited the most oohs and ahhs from the crowd, the night served to show the man he is more than the basketball player he is. Fisher, who was drafted to the Lakers the same year as Bryant, and with whom he has shared a backcourt for all but three seasons of their careers, introduced Bryant to a frenzied audience. Although when Bryant’s career wraps up, “he will be in the conversation as the best who has ever played,” Fisher said, he noted that “everyone here has really played a part in who he is, not what he is.”
Earlier in the ceremony, English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, who taught Bryant in 10th grade and a senior year speaking arts class, gave a little more insight into what he means to the community that he still cares so much about. “You’re not a hero, you’re not a demigod,” Mastriano said, trying to put his accomplishments into perspective, even as she lauded his work ethic and successes by remarking that we all “reach for those moments of perfection.” Of his relationship with the school, she told Bryant, “You sustain us, you inspire us, you gladden our hearts. I treasure the fact that you’re a part of our family. I love you for that.”
Gregg Downer, entering his 20th season as Lower Merion basketball coach, manned the sidelines as Bryant and his teammates, many of whom were in attendance Thursday night, won the Pennsylvania AAAA state title in 1996, just months before Bryant declared for the NBA draft. “You have spent close to half your life in California, but you have never forgotten your Aces roots, down to the Aces shorts you wear under your Lakers ones,” Downer said. Bryant has maintained a close relationship with his coach during his rise to NBA superstardom, even calling Downer on his cell phone, talking to each player on the LM team to encourage them en route to the 2005 state championship game. The coach continued, “It’s an honor to name our new home the Bryant Gymnasium, and every time we take the floor, you will be a part of us.”
Clearly touched by the adoration bestowed upon him during this homecoming visit, Bryant stammered through a short speech (complete with “MVP” chants from the audience) before cutting the ribbon to formally open the gym. “This is not really my cup of tea, so I’m actually nervous,” he said, before addressing the students directly. “Demand greatness from yourself,” he told them. “If I ask you guys for anything, I ask you to always remember that as long as you possibly can, because I want to see greatness come out of this school.”
Even after suffering through a 3-11 shooting night on Friday, scoring in single digits for only the second time in the past three seasons, Bryant still seemed moved by the gym dedication, telling Comcast Sportsnet’s Dei Lynam after the game, “The coolest thing about it was that the students from the school were there, and that they came out to support me.”