The news of Kobe Bryant’s death has left me devastated. I choked back tears as one of the boys on my son’s fifth grade basketball team shared the shocking story with me shortly before tipoff on January 26. Though Kobe, 41, was eight years my junior, I also grew up in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. I first knew of him as the son of former National Basketball Association player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant after he and his family moved back to the Philadelphia area in middle school upon the conclusion of Joe’s professional career.
I had friends whose younger brothers were Kobe’s friends, and Kobe obliterated one of my friend’s all-time scoring record at Lower Merion High School. I watched him lead Lower Merion to the Pennsylvania state championship in 1996, and marveled after seeing him take down fellow McDonald’s All-American and future NBA star Richard “Rip” Hamilton in a playoff game at a packed-to-the-rafters Palestra in a singular performance that I have always described as “a man playing against a boy.”
I even shouted him out in my academic research. My first law review article back in 1998 was titled “Must Kobe Come Out and Play? An Analysis of the Legality of Preventing High School Athletes and College Underclassmen from Entering Professional Sports Drafts,” referencing Kobe’s decision two years prior to forego college and go straight to the NBA. Kobe was one of us.
But this story is not about me. It’s about the odd friendship between Kobe Bryant and my grandmother, of all people. My parents owned Wynnewood Pharmacy, a mom-and-pop neighborhood drugstore near Lower Merion High School, for nearly 30 years. They employed my grandmother, aunts, cousins, and assorted others of unknown relations.
The pharmacy had an old-fashioned soda fountain that lured young Kobe on many a morning before school, and before the store would actually be open for business. Their first meeting began auspiciously, as my grandmother, harboring a racial stereotype, refused to unlock the door and allow in this young, hoodie-wearing, African-American kid dribbling a basketball.
My father saw this and immediately ran to the door, unlocking it and welcoming 14 year-old Kobe in with open arms. But when they struck up conversation, my grandmother let him know that her late husband (my grandfather) had played professional basketball for four years in the 1930s and ‘40s with the Philadelphia SPHAs of the old American Basketball League. Kobe was immediately taken with her and she regaled him with stories of legendary players and teams during their frequent morning talks that lasted throughout his high school career.
My grandmother had a fierce sense of humor, knew basketball, wasn’t afraid to curse and usually left Kobe laughing. He was particularly surprised to learn that my grandfather left Temple University after his junior year in 1939 to turn pro early, as he needed to earn money to help support his family.
To my grandmother, Kobe was just a good high school kid who liked to laugh and talk. It was her first real interaction with an African-American male, and it left an indelible mark on her. My grandmother taught him a little bit about the history of basketball. He taught her about race relations. She remained a fan until she passed away after his second season in the NBA, always remarking what a fine young man he was whenever “her friend Kobe’s” name came up.
I shared this story with some of my students several years ago, one of whom relayed it to Kobe when they met shortly thereafter. The student called me excitedly, saying, “Kobe Bryant remembers your grandmother! When I mentioned your grandmother to him, he smiled and said ‘I loved Miss Anne.’ ”
My heart breaks for Kobe’s family and all who knew him.