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At 13: 'That kid's a pro'

Kobe Bryant's former high school coach is not surprised with the 22-year-old Laker's enormous success.

By Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 16, 2001

ARDMORE, Pa. -- The tree-lined streets and landscaped lawns identify this quiet community as a typical American suburb. In the middle of it stands Lower Merion High School, where Gregg Downer coaches basketball and Kobe Bryant once played.

Downer grew up playing ball in the area, an educator who enjoys explaining dribbles and dunks to kids. One day, fate dropped an eighth-grader with a special talent into his midst.

Bryant had spent eight years in Italy where his father was closing out a pro career that had taken him all over the basketball map. When it was time to come home, the family settled on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Joe "Jellybean" Bryant had played for the 76ers.

Joe Bryant's youngest child, his only son, drew attention immediately; Downer heard there was a special player in the neighborhood.

"There was a buzz about a 13-year-old who was playing on the junior high eighth grade team," Downer said. "I went to see him once. I do that rarely. I was so impressed that I invited him to practice with our varsity. After five minutes, I turned to somebody and said, "That kid's a pro.' "

There was a continental flare about the youngster, who spoke fluent Italian and played fluid basketball. He could drive and he could dunk. He could rebound and he could pass. He had all the tools.

"I knew right away I had something unbelievable, something special," Downer said. "He was 6-2 and 140 pounds. Physically, he was not very mature, but there was a fundamental foundation to his play."

Lower Merion had been home to some good players. Their names are on the gymnasium wall, six members of the school's 1,000-point club. Next to them, in a column all his own, is Bryant, who not only broke the school-scoring record, but nearly tripled it with a career total of 2,883 points.

When he was through, Bryant had scored more points than anybody in Philadelphia high school history, and this is a city where Wilt Chamberlain grew up. "He was a hard-nosed player," Downer said.

And a broken-nosed one, too.

Downer remembers the 1996 state championship game against Chester. Bryant's nose was rearranged the day before the semifinal game in a loose ball collision during practice. There was talk about him wearing a protective mask, but Bryant refused. He scored 39 points in the title game and Lower Merion won its first state championship in 53 years.

That was a dramatic turnaround from Bryant's freshman season when the team went 4-20, and the district finals in his junior year when Chester beat Lower Merion by 27.

Downer remembers Bryant's drive. "He had a hatred of losing like I've never seen," the coach said. "He'd chase kids around if he thought they were responsible for losing a drill."

By the time he was a senior, the word was out about Bryant. Lower Merion became a magnet for college recruiters.

But his agenda did not include college. He was headed for what Downer had seen as his destiny. He declared for the NBA draft.

"I was neutral about that," Downer said. "I knew he'd be a good pro in time. I didn't know-how quickly, how mentally healthy it is for an 18-year-old to hang out in an adult world."

Pro scouts viewed him as the top high school player but there is always some trepidation about drafting teenagers. But this one was special. "He was ready," Downer said.

The Sixers owned the first pick, opting instead for Allen Iverson. Bryant went to Charlotte with the 13th pick and immediately traded to Los Angeles for Vlade Divac.

No one can quibble with the 76ers pick. Iverson, after all, was the rookie of the year that season, has twice led the league in scoring and is this season's MVP.

But Downer thinks they would have done as well with Bryant, who at 22, already owns a championship ring and is one win away from getting another, right in his old back yard.

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