Editor's note: Long before Kobe Bryant was an NBA megastar he was a high school megastar at Lower Merion in Ardmore, Pa. It was there where Philadelphia-area scribe and now MaxPreps contributor Joseph Santoliquito first introduced readers to the future 12-time All-Star. On the heels of winning a fifth NBA title - and now earning him legitimate comparisons to icon Michael Jordan - we asked Santoliquito to share his memories of Bryant as a prep.
THERE WAS ALWAYS a cockiness about Kobe Bryant, though back then it was sometimes wrapped in a jovial, approachable package. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. No guard had to be constantly up when he could laugh at himself around his teammates. He was able to be silly on team bus rides, and make the kind of awkward facial expressions teenaged stars can get away with before the world gets a hold of them and chastises their every move. He could be public with his emotions and what he really thought. There was no one to question this precocious prodigy deemed the best high school athlete in the world.
Kobe’s personal, gold-plated armor seemed thicker then. However, the bullets and shrapnel still hurled at him today in some corners come much denser and larger than they did in the mid-1990s, too.
Bryant was able to laugh at almost anything, from junk defenses designed to stop him, to the few clods in the media who doubted the 6-6, 190-pound spaghetti strand could make the successful jump to the NBA.
Does anyone doubt him now?
The funny thing is the 17-year-old kid who stood in the packed creaky Lower Merion (Ardmore, Pa.) gym that day in early May 1996 knew even on the brink of manhood how great he would be. He announced to the world his intention of skipping “college and take my talent to the NBA.”
What’s even stranger is that Bryant found out before he even stepped foot on a basketball court his senior year of high school.
Yes, some of Kobe Bryant’s best games have gone unseen by the public eye. Bryant came up during a different time. A time before the instant world of camcorders and iPhones; around the advent of the internet. What proved to Bryant that he could play — and succeed — arrived in pick-up games in the St. Joseph’s Fieldhouse in the summer of 1995, tearing up pros like Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff Malone, members of the 76ers then.
They tried keeping up with “The kid,” and couldn’t. At first, just friendly games took on a different tone, because Bryant was embarrassing them. More so, because the punk with the sideways smile was denting egos he wasn’t supposed to. It didn’t take long for Bryant to be viewed in a whole new light. He stood up to attempts at being backed down. He manned-up when out in the open floor against the pros. Still the same — the kid was hanging.
Bryant answered a lot of questions about himself that summer — there was just one lingering, nagging doubt that he needed to address: Could he win? An important chunk of his legacy hadn’t been written. Recognized as the nation’s best high school player, with whirlwinds of speculations buzzing around him, Bryant hadn’t won anything yet. He was noncommittal as to what direction he was headed. Though, he was adamant when it came to his immediate future — a Pennsylvania state championship.
“All this stuff I’m getting is nice,” said Bryant at the time about the swirling attention. “But what I really want is to win. Being seen as the best player in the country is great. I work hard on my game and one day I’d like to be considered the best player in the world. But I can’t even think about that without first winning something here at Lower Merion. I still live with that [District 1 championship] game. It still bothers me. If I’m supposed to be the best, then the best player has to win.
“That’s what people forget about me. The scholarship offers and this talk about me one day making the big step and playing in the NBA is all nice and everything, but I haven’t even won at the high school level yet. If I can’t win at this level, how am I going to win at a higher level, whether it’s college or the NBA. I have to win something here first. That’s the only thing that’s driving me now.”
The nightmare Kobe was dealing with was the 77-50 thrashing his Lower Merion team took his junior year against defending state champion Chester on March 3, 1995, in the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA (large school) championship at Villanova.
Bryant was suffocated everywhere he went on the floor, forced many bad shots and for one of the rare times ever in his spectacular career (high school or pro) looked indecisive on a basketball court.
A year later, the wiseguy, sideways smile was back.
“I had to get that, I had to get Chester back and show that we are the best in the state,” said Bryant, after leading Lower Merion to a 60-53 victory over Chester in the District 1 semifinals at the fabled Palestra in his senior year.
The Aces finished 31-3 that 1995-96 season in winning the state title. Highlights of Bryant in the state championship game were shown on all of the local Philadelphia TV stations, something that doesn’t happen even today despite the growth of high school sports.
Kobe ended his career as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer with 2,883 points, surpassing legends Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons.
But one of the more lasting images of the high school Bryant came after the District 1 semifinal victory over Chester at the Palestra. With the second semifinal game about to begin, Bryant took a brief respite walking around the halls of the storied hoops venue like a sort of pied piper, with a circle of followers around him that any NBA star would have been envious of. It included a group of high school girls and women in their 20s, grown men looking to take a picture with him and a plethora of autograph seekers.
One hoping for an autograph walking on the periphery of the crowd was a young boy about six or seven-years-old, holding a legal pad in his hands the size of his tiny torso. When the boy finally fell into Kobe’s vision, Bryant stopped the group like a strutting marching band leader and turned to the boy.
“Hey buddy,” Bryant looked down and said. “You want me to sign that for you?”
The boy, too nervous to respond, anxiously shook his head “yes.”
Bryant reached down and grabbed the legal pad and pen from the boy’s shaking hands and asked him his name. Kobe proceeded to walk with the boy, signing the pad while motioning a stop sign to the masses that had since gathered behind him. It was just Kobe and the kid.
“Hey,” the high school phenom said to the boy, as the two walked ahead in what was a living Norman Rockwell portrait. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
And Kobe reached over with his right hand and gave the kid a little pat on his right shoulder as they continued walking away together … a future superstar and a boy who’s now a young man with the memory of a lifetime.
Joseph Santoliquito covers high schools for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a contributor to MaxPreps.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.