The NBA Season Opens Tonight, and TAPinto Looks Back at the Last Hurrah of Lower Merion Legend Kobe Bryant
On November 29th, 2015 Kobe Bean Bryant announced he would retire from the NBA at the end of the season. Two days later he would step onto the floor for his final game in Philadelphia, just a hop, skip and jump from Lower Merion High School where 19 years earlier he suited up for the Aces.
The Wells Fargo Center was packed that night, despite the Sixers being winless on the season. Everywhere you looked in the crowd were Lower Merion jerseys emblazoned with Kobe’s name and number. The Sixers gave him a video tribute, his high school coach presented him with a framed jersey, and the crowd exploded during player introductions. The Philadelphia crowd isn’t really known for being friendly to opposing players, but that night, knowing it was last time in front of his hometown crowd, Kobe was serenaded with MVP chants.
The Philadelphia crowd cheering him as lustily as they did in 1996 when during his senior season he brought a state championship to Lower Merion for the first time in over half a century. Despite the Sixers passing him over in the draft that year (In favor of Philly’s adopted favorite son, Allen Iverson), his story remained intertwined with the city of his birth.
He started the game hitting his first three shots as a rumble went through the crowd. ‘Could this be one of those nights?’ people asked. Twitter wondered if the emotion of the night might drive him to a historical performance.
It wasn’t to be as the Sixers went on to win their first game of the year. Kobe would end the night with 20 points on 7-26 shooting. It was far from his finest night as a pro, but one that Bryant would describe as “I couldn't ask for anything better, other than winning the game."
For the people of Ardmore, and especially Lower Merion High School, Bryant meant everything. His high school coach, Gregg Downer told the USA Today in 2016, “We are a relatively small school, The suburban schools would be labeled soft. The inner-city schools would be labeled gritty and tough. Kobe set the foundation and showed us how to do it.”
That toughness that Bryant was known for is the kind of toughness that Philadelphia and its surrounding areas pride themselves on. When Matt Barnes thrust the ball in Kobe’s face in the famous clip, Kobe didn’t flinch. The people of Ardmore and Philadelphia likewise have never flinched in the face of adversity. The city and the player have always considered themselves a reflection of each other. Kobe once mentioned that he brought a bit of Philly to LA. During his playing days, he never lost that bit of the city he carried with him and the city never forgot that.
As he walked off the crowd shifted from cheering for the Sixers to an enormous standing ovation for Bryant that lasted for ages. As Kobe blew a kiss and waved to the crowd, you could hear the decibel level rise with each step towards the locker room. If you listened hard enough, in the middle of the roar, you could hear the sound of teenagers cheering for young Kobe as he walked off the court at Lower Merion all those years earlier. Those teenagers, now middle-aged mothers and fathers with kids of their own, never forgot what Kobe had brought to their town.
I was there that night, sitting in my usual spot in the mezzanine. Next to me were two kids, no more than 18 or 19 years old. They were both in Lower Merion maroon and white Bryant ‘33’ jerseys. Tears filled their eyes as Kobe disappeared into the tunnel that last time. They stood there clapping till well after most of the crowd had shuffled out.
Sometimes a player sticks with a city, sometimes a city sticks with a player. In the case of Ardmore and the rest of Philadelphia, it’s both.