SANTA BARBARA — The stories roll off the tip of Gregg Downer’s tongue, rehashing both new and old tales on how a young Kobe Bryant began his legacy over 18 years ago at Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia.
Downer, who has coached the Aces ever since Bryant played there, glowed about how Bryant needed to win every shooting drill or sprint. He marveled at how Bryant attended Lower Merion at 6 a.m. everyday for a workout. Downer cited numerous examples on how Bryant played through numerous injuries, including a recently broken nose that required him wearing a plastic mask that he eventually ditched. Downer laughed telling how Bryant’s competitiveness oozed so much that he once chewed out a benchwarmer after he mistakenly failed to give him the ball for the last shot of a scrimmage.
All of these examples should sound familiar to the Lakers, who have seen Bryant guide them through five NBA championships with an unyielding work ethic, a demanding leadership style and a strong injury threshold. They also explain how Bryant led Lower Merion High School to a state championship title in 1996, its first in 53 years, and broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring record (2,883 to 2,252). Yet, in a visit to Philadelphia earlier this year, it became clear that Bryant’s legacy at his alma mater went beyond his achievements. His lasting power also partly stems from maintaining close relationships with those in the Aces program.
So when Bryant hosts his eighth basketball camp beginning Wednesday at UC Santa Barbara, it should come as no surprise that he will lean on his alma mater. A 11-member delegation representing the Aces program will help run Bryant’s camp, according to Bryant’s former teammate and Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young. That list will include Aces coaches (Downer, varsity assistant Adam Miller, JV coach Will Carter, strength coach Rob Jones), former teammates (Jermaine Griffin, Guy Stewart, Young), current players (sophomore Noah Fennell) and future prospects (Stevie Payne, Darryl Taylor).
“It’s a great way to connect with him in a low key environment than in the season when he’s in town for a couple of hours,” Young said of Bryant. “We really treasure those opportunities to sit down and have meaningful conversations with him outside of the limelight where it’s a lot like what it was back in the day.”
So both to catch up with his alma mater and attach a personal presence to the stories Downer shares to his players, Bryant often holds an open Q&A session with his Lower Merion proteges.
“It was laid back. It wasn’t a speech,” said Lower Merion’s Justin McFadden, who graduated this past year and will play for Binghamton University next season. “It was chill just to talk to him about the season and the NBA and have a chance to ask questions. That was really cool. At first, we were all starstruck, but he made us all feel comfortable.”
That hardly describes the vibe once they are on the gym floor. Oh, the Aces relish how they have helped out a camp that features boys and girls ages 8 to 18 learn various offenses (Flex, Princeton, Triangle), hear from motivational speakers and scrimmage against each other. But the tone surely fits Bryant’s persona when he plays in a game himself.
“I want them to push the kids and challenge them,” Bryant said in the video above. “When they go to other basketball camps, because they’re kids and eight and nine years old, they don’t put the demands on them to learn a complicated offense. My philosophy is you should teach them now. That way when they grow up, they have a high basketball IQ and learn how to play in a system. That’s how our camp is different than any other camp.”
The camp is also obviously different because of Bryant, who offers both one-on-one instruction, autographs and a team photo (along with a large purchase price). Accounts recall that one year an eight-year-old camper mistakenly challenged Bryant to a game of one-on-one and was immediately blocked on his shot attempt. Last year, Young recalled how Bryant engaged in intensive trash talking with members of Lower Merion’s 2013 state championship team that claimed it would have beaten Bryant’s led 1996 state title team. Others marveled on how Bryant went over in exacting detail certain fundamentals about his game.
“He was so big on footwork,” said Lower Merion senior Corey Sherman, who attended the camp in 2010. “He was showing us complex things he can do with his feet. The whole game is predicated off your feet. If you have good feet, you can play. He harped on that all the time.”
Perhaps there was one thing Bryant harped on more, a concept that continuously drives him and that has stayed ingrained in the Lower Merion and Lakers culture.
“He believes that things are measured in championships,” Downer said of Bryant’s message. “He would tell them, ‘Whoever you have to take care of, take care of them.’ He and I have established cultures where we’re not interested in second place.”