The most iconic moments from Kobe Bryant’s 20 years on the Los Angeles Lakers will forever be immortalized in basketball lore — the alley-oop pass to Shaquille O'Neal in Game 7, the 81-point explosion, the 60-point farewell, the list goes on. But before the world came to know Bryant — who died tragically on Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others — his organized basketball career took shape miles from Penn’s campus at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa.
By the start of his senior season at Lower Merion in 1995, Bryant had established himself as the country’s top basketball prospect. In the two games that Bryant played at the Palestra during the 1995-1996 season, he drew sold-out crowds — news articles about the games suggest that close to 10,000 fans were in attendance, greatly exceeding the arena’s seating capacity. Even as a high schooler, though, Bryant showed no signs of fear.
“I don’t think Kobe Bryant was ever nervous,” said Jeremy Treatman, who was an assistant coach for Lower Merion that season and developed a relationship with Bryant.
The first of Bryant’s known games at the Palestra came against Coatesville Area Senior High School in the PIAA District I Class AAAA semifinal. That game featured Bryant against another future NBA All-Star in Richard “Rip” Hamilton. According to an archived Philadelphia Daily News article, Lower Merion won that game, 70-65. While Hamilton was reported to hold his own, Bryant’s performance supported the belief of many that he was the best prospect not only in the area, but in the country. His 29 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks far outpaced the 16 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists put up by Hamilton.
In the game’s waning seconds, Bryant approached his father, Joe, in the first row of the stands for a quick embrace. Joe Bryant was an assistant coach for La Salle at the time and was plenty familiar with the Palestra himself. During his three-year collegiate career, the “Cathedral of College Basketball" also served as the home court of the Explorers.
After the game, Joe Bryant told the Daily News that his son still had not decided whether he would want to play college basketball the next year or go straight to the NBA. But even with his immediate basketball future uncertain, Bryant’s performance at the Palestra that night inspired further awe over the promise of his talent. An article in The Daily Pennsylvanian about the game began: “Have you ever wondered what the future of basketball looks like?”
Two months later, Bryant declared for the NBA Draft and was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets before being traded to the Lakers. One reason he was drafted so late may have been due to concerns that arose after the final high school game he played in the Palestra. That game was against Chester High School in the PIAA Class AAAA State Eastern final. Although Lower Merion won in overtime, 77-69, with Bryant showing off his normal high-scoring exploits (Treatman said he scored 39 points in the game), Bryant's weaknesses, particularly his ball-handling, were put under a magnifying glass.
"It was the game that made everyone think that Kobe Bryant wasn’t an NBA player — everyone said he couldn’t get the ball past half court versus Chester,” Treatman said. "I remember telling everyone, ‘You don’t understand. John Linehan is faster than anyone in the NBA. He could play defense in the NBA right now himself.’"
Linehan went on to play college basketball for Providence, where he graduated as the NCAA Division I’s all-time career leader in steals.
Bryant sealed the victory against Chester with a soaring and-one dunk that pushed the Palestra into a frenzy. That moment lives on in a “One Shining Moment” video of the team’s season that Treatman created and narrated.
Two days after the win over Chester, Lower Merion played against Cathedral Prep of Erie in the PIAA Class AAAA state championship, marking the final matchup of Bryant’s high school career. Lower Merion emerged victorious, 48-43, winning the school its first state title in 53 years and sending Bryant out on top.