Though just 16, he was already referred to simply as Kobe. No last name required.
Kobe Bryant was a junior in high school the first time I saw him play basketball.
John Lucas, the 76ers’ coach at the time, had invited Bryant to St. Joseph’s to watch the Sixers practice. Bryant played some 1-on-1 with then-Sixer Vernon Maxwell afterward and held his own, which opened some eyes because Maxwell was an above-average NBA player.
Later that same year, I got to see Bryant and his Lower Merion team face Chester in the 1994-95 PIAA District One championship game at Villanova. When Bryant swished a mid-range jumper on the Aces’ first offensive possession, he went back on defense shaking his head as if to say Chester couldn’t stop him.
Even at that age, he was cocky and fearless — two traits that served him well during his 20-year playing career with the Lakers.
But Chester, with its 40 minutes of fullcourt pressure and tremendous depth, wore him down en route to a 77-50 victory.
Though just 16, he was already referred to simply as Kobe. No last name required. Conversations stopped when he walked past. His dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, soon became known more for his son than his NBA playing career that included four seasons with the Sixers.
With a better supporting cast, Bryant and Lower Merion defeated Chester in the district final and went on to win the state championship a year later.
Bryant ended his high school career as the all-time leading scorer in Southeastern PA with 2,883 points, surpassing legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons.
He didn’t win right away — or even become a starter until his third season with the Lakers, who acquired him in a draft-day deal after the Hornets made him the No. 13 overall pick — following his jump directly to the NBA. But he eventually won five championships, earned a pair of NBA Finals MVPs and played in 15 all-star games.
Bryant had a love-hate relationship with Philadelphia fans, who booed him every time he touched the ball during the Lakers’ annual trip to visit the Sixers.
The Philly faithful really let Bryant have it during the three games here in the 2001 NBA Finals after Bryant said he wanted to “cut their hearts out” heading into the series. Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of Phil Jackson’s team won all three to secure the second of what would be three consecutive titles.
When Bryant earned the 2002 All-Star Game MVP in Philadelphia, boos rained down on him as he held up his trophy.
It wasn’t until a Dec. 1, 2015, game at the Wells Fargo Center just days after Bryant announced that would be his final season as a player that the fans showed him how they truly feel.
After a lengthy introduction, there was an extended ovation and chants of “Ko-be, Ko-be.”
The chants picked up again at game’s end, leaving Bryant walking off the court waving and tapping his chest.
“They got me,” Bryant said of the Philly fans that night. “I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction. You can’t script that stuff. The amount of adoration I have for this city means everything to me.”
Philly fans loved that Bryant wanted the ball with the game hanging in the balance. He craved the bright lights.
He didn’t shoot a particularly high percentage from the field (44.7%) or 3-point range (32.9%) during his career. The thing that made Kobe Kobe was he didn’t always make the big shot, but he was always willing to take it.
Bryant died the morning after current Laker LeBron James slipped past him to become the league’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer during a game in South Philadelphia.
Bryant graciously praised James in a final tweet Saturday night, saying “Continuing to move the game forward, @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
I think back to those days of a promising 16-year-old 25 years ago and the superstar he became and I don’t want to believe what’s happened.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly