Fame didn’t make Kobe Bryant forget where his roots and friends are. The basketball star has kept in touch with his former coach, Gregg Downer, giving regular support to both the man he says molded his game, and the school he came from.
Bryant recently visited his old school where he spoke with the Lower Merion boys basketball team about its season, before going down memory lane with his former coach.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bryant managed to lead Lower Merion, a suburban high school outside of Philadelphia, to its first state title in 53 years after a challenge issued to him by his coach. Ensuring to make the season memorable, he also broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring record, raising it to 2,883 from 2,252.
“He had a lot to do with me. I was very fortunate to have great coaching throughout my career,” said Bryant about Downer. “He was a great coach.”
It didn’t take long for Downer to see Bryant’s potential. Within five minutes of seeing him play for the first time he turned to one of his assistant coaches commenting that the kid would become an NBA star.
“He was fundamentally sound and he didn’t really have any glaring weaknesses,” remembers Downer. “I knew he would get bigger and stronger. It was a rarity to see a 13-year-old that good.”
By his senior year, Bryant had become a McDonald’s All-American. However, Downer did not let that be a defining achievement, as he still had a number of local players ranked ahead of him. Among them was Coatesville’s Richard Hamilton, who later became an NBA player himself, spending the majority of his career with the Detroit Pistons.
“At the time, it was very hard to track players on what the competition is,” Bryant said. “Gregg went out and did that research for me with the Street and Smith books. I was nowhere to be found on that list.”
That was the motivation needed to keep Bryant on his toes, resulting in the championship win his senior year, and one of the most prolific careers in U.S. basketball history.
Now, two decades later and after announcing his retirement after the current season, Bryant played his final game in Philadelphia in front of 400 members of Lower Merion High School, and his former coach, the man who shaped his early basketball identity, bringing his career full circle.
Read the entire Los Angeles Daily News story describing Bryant’s high school game days here.