LOWER MERION — As word spread across the Delaware Valley Sunday that basketball great Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California, fans and friends of the Lower Merion High School alumnus made a pilgrimage to pay their respects at the school's Bryant Gymnasium.
As Bryant stormed through the Central League in 1995 and 1996 everyone knew he was something special but few could have known one could have known just how big he would become.
Many of the biggest games were against Chester. In 1995 the Aces fell to Chester in the District 1 championship game. At the awards ceremony, Bryant quickly took off the runners-up medal. He would be back, he knew.
Tickets for his games would sell out ahead of time as No. 33 led the Aces to the PIAA Class AAAA championship in 1996 and he went on to be named a McDonald’s All-American and the Gatorade Player of the Year.
After the state title and parade that followed, Bryant held a press conference to announce what had been speculated upon, that he was skipping college and was making himself eligible for the NBA Draft.
"He was just a young guy then, 17 or 18 years old," recalled Brookhaven resident and former NBA referee Bill Oakes, who broke into the league full-time in 1978, the year Bryant was born. "He was one of the first to come right out of high school to the NBA. ... He was confident."
“It’s a very sad day, he was a big part of our lives here in Lower Merion," said Herb Jenkin, who lives near the school and had three children attend Lower Merion. “He was an institution. He came straight out of high school to the pros. There was a lot of pride in that. And he would come back and do nice things for the community. He was a great source of pride for the local community.”
Another paying tribute was Katie Harris of Ardmore, who placed a basketball at the door in honor of Bryant.
“My boyfriend Arian Thompson was a player that was part of the winning 2006 state championship team. "He's too upset to come," said Harris. "Kobe had a major impact on his life. During the state championship run he would call the team during halftime and give them tips. He wrote on the ball, 'A legend never dies.'"
"We all watched Kobe and have been inspired by him," said Heather Cates of Lower Merion, a Los Angeles native. “It's a sad day. Everyone knows who Kobe is. It was so amazing to go watch him and Shaq playing together in LA."
Amy Vanderlei of Rosemont, who wore her Lakers jacket, remembered being in fifth grade when Kobe came to the school. “We made a big banner for him, he was great," she said. "He had some run-ins, but was really a great person.”
Saint Joseph’s University student Mike Pope grew up in Washington D.C. but was deeply affected by Bryant growing up.
“Something about him just made me fall in love with him,” Pope said after leaving a Bryant jersey at the foot of the gymnasium door. “I have so many good memories that he created and are connected with my dad, who I shared a love of basketball with.”
“He will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and he won’t be there,” said Shawn Harris.
Added Cabrini basketball player Patrick Costa: "When we got done practice and we heard the news, I was shocked. He was a legend, on and off the court."
MediaNews Group correspondent Barb Ormsby contributed to this article.