Before he was a five-time NBA Champion, before a professional career that spanned 19 seasons and a personal life marked with a sexual assault charge, and before the Los Angeles Lakers retire both his No. 24 and No. 8 jerseys, Kobe Bryant was a Philadelphia-area high school star. Bryant is a noted Eagles fan and had soft pretzels and mustard waiting for him in the visiting locker room when he came back to his hometown to play (and quite often beat) the 76ers.
But, throughout the years, Bryant grew from a star at local Lower Merion High School to a heel that Philly sports fans loved to hate. Going back through the archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com, elicits a portrait of the all-time great’s complicated connection to his hometown.
For the best look at what Bryant was like as a teenager on the court, Mike Jensen went straight to the source: those who played with and against him. During his time at Lower Merion, Bryant not only mesmerized teammates, fans and opponents, but he built his reputation as a ruthless competitor and trash-talker. Take the former-high school player who thought it was a good idea to speak ill of the playing career of Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, during a summer pick-up game. “He blocks my shot,” Bryant’s victim told Jensen. “He essentially caught the ball and threw it into a jungle gym like 40 feet away, over a fence.”
During his time in high school, Bryant would train with the Philadelphia 76ers. John Lucas, then the club’s head coach and general manager, would rate draft prospects based on how they performed against Bryant in one-on-one matchups. Bob Ford details how Lucas became so impressed with Bryant that he would have taken the prep star first overall in the 1996 NBA Draft. Lucas, though, was fired before the draft and the 76ers chose Allen Iverson. The rest is, quite literally, history.
Michael Egan was an assistant coach at Lower Merion for two seasons while Bryant starred. His account of Bryant’s time in Philly mirrors much of the same tropes that have followed him throughout his career. Among the many anecdotes Egan shares is this one: “There is an oft-told story of him chasing 5-7 Robby Schwartz through the hallways after a Schwartz turnover cost Kobe’s team a victory in a drill. That story has grown legs over the years, but is based on real events and is a great example of Kobe’s competitive nature. If you were keeping score, Kobe was playing to win.”
So what happened? When did Philly turn on Bryant? Or, when did Bryant turn on the city? Many point to the 2001 NBA Finals, where Bryant’s Lakers took out Iverson’s 76ers in five games to win a championship. During that series, Bryant reportedly told a heckling fan that he was going to “cut their hearts out” in reference to his opponents, and by extension the city in which he was born. Also, many cannot forgive Bryant for being accused of sexual assault in 2003, which has continued to plague his public image. Frank Fitzpatrick wonders: will Bryant ever be embraced in his hometown?
Stephen A. Smith felt that Bryant’s basketball stardom must transcend the pettiness that led Philadelphians to boo him at nearly every chance they got. “You would think with such lofty credentials there would be a statue standing somewhere, on some street corner, perhaps near City Hall, paying homage to Kobe Bryant — the greatest champion to ever come out of a place known for its associations with anything but,” Smith writes.