On the Los Angeles Lakers' preseason trip to Barcelona, Kobe Bryant(notes) watched the young kids with a basketball and marveled over the differences in the development of too many players in the States.
"Every single one, it seemed – the 8-year-old, the 9-year-olds – go left and they go right," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports recently. "The older ones shoot the jump hook with the left, and they shoot the jump hook with the right. You've got bigger kids who can shoot from the outside, who can handle the ball and play. A lot of young players that look like [Pau] Gasol, who are just so skilled.
"And now, you've got kids here in the States, 20 years old, who can't do those things. Damn, you've got max players who can't do that."
Bryant laughed, but he was barely kidding. What it reminded him was how fortunate he had been at the most important level of the game – high school basketball – to have had a coach teach him the fundamentals and drill him over and over.
As much as anything, this is the reason Bryant returned to Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia for a ceremony on Thursday night where they named his alma mater's gym after him. He pledged $411,000 for educational and interactive exhibits within the gymnasium where his old coach, Gregg Downer, still runs the team.
"He was always a sponge," Downer said by phone this week.
Bryant had so much to learn when he came out of Lower Merion and into the NBA draft in 1996, but he always appreciated the knowledge he brought with him. He's forever grateful to Downer in that way, loyal to a coach who was willing to immerse himself into a driven young prodigy. There are so many of these coaches in so many cities and small towns, everywhere. Most of them don't get a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Bryant, the son of an ex-NBA player, to walk into the gym, but they all do the best they can with whatever kids do come along.
"I really had a great high school coach," Bryant said. "I really had a great high school. I had the will to learn the game, but he had the knowledge to teach me the game. He would get there early to work with me on the basic things: midrange game, footwork.
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"But these kids now, the coaches are catering to the star players. They don't want to tell them when they're messing up. They don't want to correct things. They end up skating through things in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union], and go to college and still have all these weaknesses in their game. I don't like it. I don't like it.
"I think it's a system thing we need to address in the United States."
AAU basketball is still king, and perhaps that's made it harder for the generation of stars to overtake Bryant. Before Lower Merion High School, Kobe had grown up in Italy and learned his lessons in the European system. Back in the States, Downer elevated everything for Bryant. Now, he doesn't need to be the most athletic, most explosive player on the planet to be its best. This was true of Michael Jordan in his 30s and still the case for Bryant. What was most vital to Bryant's game at 16 years old is still most vital now.
"I always talk about having your bread-and-butter play, and for Kobe that was his middle-range game," Downer said. "Whenever he needed a basket, he would go to the pull-up 15-footer. I think that they shoot the 3-pointer too excessively in AAU, and you don't always see the great fundamentals. Kobe had a little mustard in his game, but he understood what his bread-and-butter was as a player, and he's never lost that."
So, yes, this makes his trip to play the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night something unforgettable for Bryant, because he spent Thursday evening back at the old gym for a fundraiser, for the dedication. For all these years, he's stayed close with Downer and the program, and isn't averse to getting on the speaker phone and giving the kids a little talk when the coach tells him they need it. For everywhere Kobe Bryant goes now, everything he sees in the game, it always reminds him how fortunate he was back in the beginning, when there was a young coach to feed his appetite for learning, to teach him the important lessons of the game. Maybe it didn't seem like the biggest deal in the world then, but all these years later, for basketball's best player, it sure does now.
- Kobe Bryant