The news of Kobe Bryant’s death has sent shock around the entire sports world. But for many in suburban Philadelphia, this is a story that hits particularly close to home.
The basketball icon grew up in the area and attended Lower Merion High School.
Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, in Calabasas, California, along with his daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven others. They were on their way to a travel basketball game that the former star was supposed to coach. His daughter, 13, was a player on the team. Bryant, a five-time NBA Finals champion, two-time Finals MVP and the 2008 NBA MVP, was 41 years old.
As the news spread that afternoon, many began to express their feelings about the tragedy. Los Angeles Lakers fans swarmed to the Staples Center, where Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 hang in the rafters as the only two numbers worn by one player to be retired by one team. The outside of the arena where Bryant played 17 of his 20 seasons in a Lakers uniform had quickly turned into a memorial site.
While people flocked Bryant’s home court in Los Angeles, a similar memorial was forming about 2,700 miles northeast. Shocked and grief-stricken locals gathered outside the Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Bryant’s alma mater.
Before the MVP awards and All-Star games, Bryant began his path to stardom at the Ardmore high school. Starting all four years, he scored a Lower Merion-record 2,883 career points. In Bryant’s senior season, he secured McDonald’s All-American, Naismith Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year honors while leading the Lower Merion Aces to the 1996 Class AAAA state championship. Bryant was selected directly out of high school in the 1996 NBA draft following his historic senior campaign.
Bryant’s local roots and professional success made him someone that many across the Main Line area took inspiration from. This was evident from the scene at Lower Merion following his death. Hundreds have visited the high school to leave notes, flowers, basketballs and jerseys out of respect for the “Black Mamba” in the week following the tragedy.
Hearing of Bryant’s death was shocking to many players on the Cabrini men’s basketball team. Sophomore forward Voshon Mack said that the team was together when they found out what happened.
“We were sitting in the locker room for a good 35-40 minutes. It was kind of silent,” he said. “We discussed it a lot after it happened.”
Mack said that a few of his teammates had already been to Lower Merion to see the memorial for Bryant and that he planned on going in the near future as well.
The Cabrini women’s basketball team did its own form of tribute for Bryant in its first game after his death. With some players writing tributes on their sneakers, the team tried to channel Bryant’s intense demeanor on the court in its game against Immaculata.
“The next game we had to play was about our ‘Mamba Mentality’,” junior guard Ashley Tutzauer said, “so we went out and played like Mamba.”
Tutzauer wrote the phrase “Mamba Mentality” on her shoes ahead of the game. She scored 13 points in a 64-56 victory.
“He was someone I watched a lot and my family watched a lot. It was kind of heartbreaking to see the news and everything,” she said.
The emotions over the passing of Bryant have not been limited to basketball players either. Sophomore soccer player Zach Garcia spoke about the impact that the news had on him as well. Garcia made his way to the memorial at the high school a few days after Bryant’s death.
“For one, Kobe grew up around here so obviously it hits a little different being that he’s from the Philly area and I grew up in this area,” he said. “… It just hit me hard seeing the news. Being that I had the opportunity to go over there and pay my respects, I had to just do it.”
Garcia also mentioned Bryant’s drive and intensity, the Mamba Mentality, as something that inspired him. It was something that Garcia and many others tried to imitate in their own crafts.
“You could translate that to everyday life no matter what, whether it be basketball, soccer, school or in general,” he said. “His work ethic is something that people strive to accomplish and be able to do. For me, that was something that I did growing up and still do today.”
Garcia’s thoughts on Bryant’s legacy and impact on what he did for the people from the area are consistent with what many have expressed since his passing.
“There’s famous people that have come out of this area of course,” he said. “But in my personal opinion, Kobe is one of the best basketball players of all time. That’s something rare.
“For him to come out of the area, I think it’s impossible to not look up to him and say, ‘That’s the guy I want to be like.'”