For years, Philadelphia has struggled with its feelings about native son Kobe Bryant.

Awed by his skills, fans here have also disowned him, even booed him.

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For sporting a Dodgers hat at a Phillies playoff game. For vowing to "cut their hearts out" when his Los Angeles Lakers beat the 76ers for the NBA crown in 2001. For acting like the superstar celebrity he is.

Over at Lower Merion High School, they know another Kobe. The alumnus who visits regularly, who chats with students and athletes, and who quietly donates his time and money.

On Monday, the Lower Merion School District cheered that superstar by agreeing to name Lower Merion High's new gymnasium after arguably its most famous graduate. The decision follows Bryant's latest donation - $411,000, the largest gift in district history.

"He's a real role model for being a loyal alumni to a public school," School Board President David Ebby said.

The money will be used in part to fund "a series of inspirational, interactive, and educational displays" throughout the school to celebrate its past.

The district plans to dedicate the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium this year, possibly around the time of the Sixers-Lakers game Dec. 17.

The old gymnasium - where Bryant led the Aces to a state championship in 1996, then announced he would go directly to the NBA - was razed to make way for the new school in Ardmore that opened this fall. (Its $100 million price tag was just slightly more than Bryant's last contract, a three-year extension for $90 million.)

Doug Young, a spokesman for the district, said Bryant proposed the gift this year when he stopped by a basketball camp run by his old coach, Gregg Downer.

"He said, 'I want to do something with the new school,' " said Young, an assistant coach and friend of Bryant's.

Bryant had hoped to keep the donation out of the spotlight, Young said, but the school board had to vote on hiring a contractor for the project.

Christopher McGinley, the district superintendent, said the decision to name the building for Bryant reflected his generosity toward the school over the last dozen years.

"He has stayed connected with Lower Merion and made frequent visits with our students and staff," McGinley said in a statement.

Officials were not sure if the gymnasium would include a wall or display honoring Bryant, who has led the Lakers to five NBA titles and twice been named Finals MVP. His retired jersey - with the number 33 - hung in the old gym.

Ebby said district officials hope the gift might stir other alumni to give back.

"These are really rotten financial times," he said. "We'd love to get some kind of donorship program going."

Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or
Inquirer staff writer Don Beideman contributed to this article.