ARDMORE, Pa. – Lower Merion High School Coach Gregg Downer won't ever forget his reaction when Kobe Bryant, rocking a shaved head with sunglasses resting above his eyebrows, stared out to a crowd of nearly 400 people and announced that he was going to bypass the traditional path in becoming a professional basketball player.
"I, Kobe Bryant, have decided to take my talents to … uh.''
Bryant paused. He rubbed his chin and looked upward, befuddled, as if he lost his train of thought amid all the laughter and camera flashes. Then, the 17-year-old smiled cocksurely and made a memorable, polarizing statement that still got considerable traction in an era before social media and 24-hour news cycles.
"I have decided to skip college and take my talents to the NBA,'' Bryant said to the sound of applause and more camera flashes.
Downer chuckles as he shared the story Monday from his office at the school where he still works. "Part of you is like, 'Did he just say this?' The other part is like, 'OK, let's go.' "
Not only did Bryant go, but he played at a level that only a handful of NBA players could ever claimed they have matched, until finally reaching a point nearly 19 years later that he felt he could "no longer do this anymore." In a heartfelt poem to the game he loves, and later a soul-spilling news conference, Bryant declared on Sunday he will retire from the Los Angeles Lakers at the conclusion of this season. Despite being one of the few people to have remain connected with Bryant through his Hall of Fame basketball journey, Downer was once again surprised by his most famous former player. Not in the bombast, or lack thereof, of the announcement but in the timing and what it represents for the remainder of Bryant's 20th season.
"I agree with the decision," Downer, 53, told Yahoo Sports. "I think it's time. I like the fact that he's not going to hang on and drag this out, like many athletes do. He's obviously not playing up to his expectation and his body is not responding real well right now. I just thought he would probably wait until the end of the season.
"I know he's not going to like this big farewell tour," Downer added, "but he deserves it."
It wasn't lost on Downer that Bryant decided to call it quits right before playing his last NBA game in a hometown with which he has had a complex relationship. Downer's allegiances as a diehard Philadelphia 76ers fan changed the moment Bryant joined the Lakers, but he understands how the rest of the city could never toss their support toward the purple and gold. He just wants fans to give Bryant an appropriate sendoff for a career that yielded five NBA championships, one Most Valuable Player award, two NBA Finals MVPs, 17 All-Star appearances and, of course, 81 points.
"My hope would be Philadelphia takes the high road and does the right thing," said Downer, who will be in attendance Tuesday night. "But you never know with this town. I'm hoping that there's good energy. A lot of eyes will be on Philly, and I think they'll come through and give the man what he deserves."
Bryant credits Philadelphia with forming his relentless, often angry, mandible-protruding style of play, but that love has at times gone unrequited. Some of the resentment came from his suburban roots and his upbringing in Italy, which made him inauthentic to some. But Bryant truly assumed the role of villain in his hometown during the 2001 NBA Finals, when he helped the Lakers win their second of three consecutive titles and told a Philadelphia heckler, "We're going to cut your hearts out." Eight months later, Bryant was booed throughout the 2002 All-Star game in Philadelphia, all the way up until he hoisted the MVP trophy.
Bryant has never had to search for that affection from Lower Merion, located just outside the city limits, where he has maintained a bond with Downer rooted in a mutual respect and a loathing for losing. Downer was a 76ers season-ticket holder who sat in the same row as Bryant's grandfather at the old Spectrum, loathed Magic Johnson and recognized within five minutes of watching Bryant scrimmage with his varsity team as an eighth-grader that he would be a pro.
Downer and Bryant led a team that went 4-20 in Bryant's freshman year to claim the school's first state championship in 53 years in Bryant's senior year. Downer organized 6 a.m. workouts, made sure Bryant wouldn't leave the gym before making 1,000 jump shots and stressed the importance of developing a mid-range game. Bryant went on to surpass Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time leading scorer in southeastern Pennsylvania school history.
"I knew it was a one-shot deal," Downer said of coaching a generational talent. "I wanted to make him the best player I could. We came up with a plan. As a freshman I told him, there are 100 people nationally that he was competing with. We've got to slice that to 50. We've got to slice that to 25. We've got to slice that to 10. And there's ways we can do that. And we did. I wanted him to be great. And the second half of that package is, he wanted it. That's half the battle. When your best player is winning all the sprints, coming in during snow storms, lifting weights, five, six days a week. Wanting to stay after practice and work on things. That's contagious. And that made my job easier. There's a lot of guys with talent that don't have the work ethic. He had one of the best work ethics of anybody in any sport ever."
Bryant remains involved with the program, offering pep talks to the team before big games, donating shoes and uniforms, and he still wears his Aces shorts underneath his Lakers shorts. He donated $500,000 to have a new gym, which bears his name, built at Lower Merion in 2010. A trophy case with Bryant's jersey, the Aces' 1996 championship trophy and several game-worn shoes rests outside, along with a mosaic hanging a few feet down the hallway. For the past nine years, Downer and his coaching staff has headed out to Santa Barbara, Calif., to participate in Bryant's basketball camp.
"In terms of coaches, he can think of Phil Jackson quite a bit and some ways he can think he had me. So it's a little unusual. Of course, he's had other coaches, but there's no Mike Krzyzewski in there, there's no Rick Pitino in there. There's no one else. I wouldn't slant things and say we're incredibly close, but he's good to us," Downer said. "I never tugged on him for anything. He probably gets pulled on by a lot of people. We did ask him for a donation for this gym, which is one of the few things we ever asked for and he said, 'Yes,' within five seconds."
Downer has innumerable Bryant stories to share from his time at Lower Merion, including the time he angrily chased a teammate into the hallway for failing to give him the ball for the last shot in the team scrimmage. But his personal favorite was another tale that embodied Bryant's trademark toughness and competitiveness. A few days before a state semifinal game against rival Chester, Bryant went diving for a loose ball in practice when he collided with a teammate and left a puddle of blood on the court from a broken nose. Bryant and Downer struggled to find a protective mask that worked, because some fogged up or affected his peripheral vision. Before the game, Downer let Bryant deliver the pregame speech. He listened while Bryant unfurled a round of profanities. Then he watched Bryant angrily rip off the mask, smash it into a wall and shout, "Let's go to war!"
Downer had nothing else to add. Bryant went on to score 39 points and lead his team to an overtime victory.
Though he played hardly no role in pushing Bryant toward the NBA out of high school, Downer was supportive – especially when he heard details of Bryant's exploits during informal workouts at St. Joseph's University with the 76ers and how he held his own against Jerry Stackhouse and dunked on Shawn Bradley. He also had a good inclination that Bryant wasn't going to college when he made no official visits. Duke would've been Bryant's college choice, Downer contends, based on conversations he had with Krzyzewski. "I visited Kentucky, he didn't. My idol in coaching was Rick Pitino and I met him, but Kobe wasn't there. Something a little strange about that," Downer said with a laugh.
The 76ers held the No. 1 pick that season, but drafted Allen Iverson while Bryant slid all the way to 13th. John Lucas, the coach who invited Bryant to those informal workouts was fired before the draft, but Downer – who has struggled to find the separation between Bryant and Michael Jordan – still believes someone within the organization should've been able to recognize the talent. "Kobe was 10 minutes away from any Sixers person that could've come and watched him. I'm not saying that drafting Iverson was a big mistake, that's another Hall of Famer. That worked out," Downer said. "The bottom line is, they could've drafted him right there, No. 1. Imagine that story. There'd be a statue right now, outside Wells Fargo [Center]."
The storybook marriage to the 76ers never came to fruition for Bryant but it never deterred him from establishing a lasting legacy in Los Angeles. The early returns from Bryant's final season have been gruesome, with the Lakers off to a 2-14 start and age and injuries contributing to Bryant playing well below past standards. But Downer believes that a positive result could be there when it's all over.
"I thought he would just fight it until the bitter end. I don't know if he thinks he can start playing better or if this is rock bottom in terms of his play," Downer said. "He must've in his heart of hearts, had a moment where he felt like the end is near and he doesn't know how long he can fight this battle. It might be a different fight if he could smell the sixth ring. My hunch was, 'This is it.' I just think it's a clean break. And if people can just gain a little bit more respect for him, he can go out on good terms and a lot of the venom that used to surround him could dissipate."