PHILADELPHIA — There marked a time when Kobe Bryant’s competitiveness, his high pain threshold and his never-ending clutch performances unfolded far away from Staples Center.
Nearly 3,000 miles away in a suburban high school outside Philadelphia, Bryant planted the first seeds of his greatness with the Lower Merion Aces. He led them to a state championship title in 1996 (its first in 53 years). Bryant broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Southeastern Pennsylvania school scoring record (2,883 to 2,252). And four years later, Bryant’s efforts proved good enough to make the leap from high school to the NBA.
Yet, as all of that unfolded, Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer seemed fully aware the foundation Bryant helped build could have crumbled apart.
“We used to jokingly say we’re only a ‘Kobe Bryant ankle sprain’ away from losing to anybody,” Downer said in an interview as part of a wide-ranging story on Bryant’s legacy both with Lower Merion and in Philadelphia.
So much that Downer once recalled Bryant fouled out in an unspecified regular-season game only for the Aces to concede 18 unanswered points in overtime.
Nearly 18 years later, the Lakers are experiencing first-hand something Lower Merion managed to avoid. Bryant missed the first 19 games this season while rehabbing his left Achilles tendon. He has sat out the past seven weeks because of a fractured left knee. And while Bryant has experienced the physical and psychological pain from sitting out, the Lakers have nursed the pain surrounding his absence. Ever since Bryant returned to the bench, the Lakers (18-34) have gone 6-21 and dropped to 14th place in the Western Conference.
“It’s got to be really hard on him to be on the sidelines having all of these injury issues,” Downer said. “He’s such a competitor that sitting on the bench is not in his DNA.”
Yet, there remains mixed optimism and uncertainty among Bryant’s former coaches and teammates that the Lakers’ star will overcome his latest setback.
“I see Kobe playing another two years at least. That’s why he signed the extension,” said Jermaine Griffin, a former Bryant teammate at Lower Merion. “Father Time catches up with everybody, but Kobe is such a student of the game where he can adapt to any situation. He adapted toward playing with Shaq and won championships. He adapted toward playing by himself. He’s going to go out there and will come back and be just as good if not better than he was last year. He’s got at least another two years, but if he wants to go longer, he can squeak a few more. But knowing Kobe, this is not the injury that keeps him back.”
The Aces cling to the body of work that showed Bryant overcoming plenty of obstacles.
By his junior year during the 1994-95 season, Bryant posted 45 points while nursing a stomach flu in a regular-season game against Haverford. During his senior season, Bryant broke his nose after diving for a loose ball and colliding with a teammate named Leo Stacy. Leading up to the Aces’ state semifinal game against rival Chester, Bryant tried on various masks to protect his tender nose. But he soon ditched the mask before leading his team with 39 points in an overtime win that took Lower Merion to the state championship game.
Still, there’s no clear signal when Bryant will show such heroics again.
The Lakers plan to evaluate Bryant after the All-Star break, but he revealed this week that he hasn’t progressed his rehab beyond stationary bike exercises. Before Bryant could even play in a game, the Lakers expect him to take a couple of weeks to advance through various conditioning and shooting drills as well as full-court scrimmaging. Once Bryant returns, an adjustment period might take place for him to find his rhythm and timing.
“I don’t know if what we’re seeing is a guy who just had an Achilles injury and recovering from it, or that he’s old and breaking down. But I know that fuels him even more,” said Evan Monsky, a former Bryant teammate at Lower Merion. “That first game back, I stayed up until 10:30 p.m. to watch it. He was mediocre, looked slow and turned the ball over. But I still stayed up to watch it. The whole country did, too. When he comes back again, everyone will be super excited. Even though we’re convinced his body is broken down and done, he still carries that same aura that he can do anything. That next shot can go down.
“I’ll be intrigued when he comes back. If you put a gun to my head, I would say the guy looks 35 years old and he’s coming off an Achilles injury. Of course, he doesn’t look good. But he has created this aura about him that he can do anything. So I wouldn’t count him out.”
Such uncertainty partly explains why the Lakers fielded criticism for signing Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension before he even returned this season. Such a move also only gives the Lakers enough financial flexibility to pursue one high-level free agent instead of two. The 2014 candidates include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Luol Dang. The 2015 candidates include Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. In 2016, stars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will hit the open market.
Larry Coon, an independent NBA salary cap expert who works as an IT director at UC Irvine, also estimated that the Lakers would have only $4.1 million in remaining cap room and $2.7 million to spend on a mini mid-level exception assuming they secure a high-priced free agent. Those numbers also assume the Lakers part ways with Pau Gasol and waive Steve Nash through the stretch provision.
“A lot of people didn’t like that contract. But if there was any guy who earned every penny of his contract, it’s him,” Downer said of Bryant. “In terms of playing hurt, playing sick, getting IV’s at halftime, you can never question his toughness. Whether that was the right contract, I don’t know. But I almost view that as a lifetime achievement and a thanks for giving the organization his heart and soul. People speculated he could’ve carved up his contract differently to free up space. But he earned that contract. I don’t think a lot of people fully understand that.”
But Lower Merion understands what’s driving Bryant these days.
“He’s doing whatever he has to do to get on the basketball court,” Griffin said. “He’s not going to half ass it just because the Lakers are losing. He’s giving it his all in rehab. Do I expect Kobe to play this season? Yeah. If Kobe is cleared to play, he’s going to play. I don’t care what the Lakers record is. He loves basketball so much and is willing to take on the challenge.”
And that challenge entails Bryant proving yet again that his determination and talent can eventually overcome any obstacle.
“Kobe wants to play and wants to play at a high level. He doesn’t know anything else,” said Jeremy Treatman, a Lower Merion assistant and a former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer that covered Bryant’s career with the Aces. “If he can play at a high level, he’ll play a high level. If he can’t, I’d imagine he’ll wait. He won’t go out there as the seventh or eighth man and score seven points a game. This is not going to be that guy. I don’t see that. But I would be surprised if he’s a pedestrian player. He may not be LeBron James anymore. But he’ll still be one of the top five players in the game.”
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