Even as a teenager, Kobe Bryant’s dedication was intense.
One Friday night during Bryant’s freshman year of high school, then-teammate Jerahme Posner stopped by his house to pick up the future NBA star’s sister for a party. When Posner invited Bryant to join them, he declined. Bryant’s reason: He had to work on his free-throw shooting.
“I remember saying, ‘Kobe, basketball season is over. It’s Friday night. Why are you practicing free throws?’” Posner said. “I vividly remember, he looked straight into my eyes. And he said with all the self-assurance in the world, ‘One day I’m going to play with Jordan.’”
Many people who knew Bryant spent Sunday thinking back on these memories following the news that the long-time Los Angeles Lakers point guard, along with eight others including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.
The entire basketball world was at a standstill. Bryant’s former teammates, rivals, and friends struggled in interviews to find the words to express their grief. Some of basketball’s biggest and toughest stars openly wept as they publicly tried to process the news. Mourning fans flocked to a makeshift memorial at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, and at the Staples Center, where Bryant played many of his biggest games.
The media has attempted to account for Bryant’s entire legacy, which includes international superstardom and nearly every conceivable basketball achievement from championship rings to MVP trophies to Olympic gold medals, but also included a 2003 credible rape allegation and his legal team’s notoriously dirty press campaign against his accuser. He was also the father to four young children, including Gianna, an aspiring basketball player whom Bryant was just recently filmed tutoring courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game.
And his death hit especially hard for some of his oldest friends back in Philadelphia.
The future five-time NBA champ spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father played professional basketball following a stint in the NBA. But it was in the Philly suburbs where people caught an early glimpse at the basketball genius to come.
For the four years Bryant attended Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia, he dominated as a member of the school’s varsity basketball team. Though the team struggled his freshman year, Bryant emerged as a budding star, eventually leading the team to a state championship and earning himself an award as Pennsylvania’s Player of the Year.
Following the news of Bryant’s death on Sunday, fans gathered outside the high-school gym that now bears his name to pay respects, leaving flowers, notes, and basketballs.
"The school community was deeply saddened by the loss of one of our most illustrious alumni,” a school spokesperson told reporters during a news conference outside the school.
"I just remember his joy and him hugging his father at the arena in Hershey," Mike Egan, an assistant coach at Lower Marion during Bryant’s time at the school, told NBC. "It was just such a neat moment to know that he had everything he could accomplish in high school. Staying at little Lower Merion, who hadn't been a great basketball powerhouse, and saying, ‘These are my guys. I'm going to win with these guys. I'm not going to jump to a different school and try to win with an all-star team.’”
Many of his friends shared memories and reminisced about the time they spent with Bryant before the world caught a glimpse.
Posner played one season of varsity basketball with Bryant when the future Lakers guard was a freshman. He’d heard about Bryant before he joined the team—as an eighth grader, Bryant already had a reputation as a promising young player. Posner knew he was legit when Bryant tried out for the varsity team and was tapped as a starter, which was virtually unheard-of for first-year students.
Bryant hadn’t yet developed many of the skills that would later make him a deadly offensive force and he was still in the throes of physical development (Posner recalled Bryant saying his doctor had discouraged him from dunking while he was still growing). But he already oozed with confidence and showed glimmers of athleticism that would later define his career as an NBA star.
During a visit to Bryant’s house one day, Posner said he was goaded into a one-on-one match with Bryant in his driveway. It did not go well.
“He proceeded to thrash me during one-on-one,” Posner fondly recalled. “It was probably one of the most humiliating moments of my life.”
Even after he graduated, Posner said he kept in touch for a while with Bryant and his family, continuing to watch Bryant grow and evolve as a player. He recalled visiting Bryant’s house during his sophomore year, when Kobe showed him boxes full of letters from all of the biggest basketball schools in America, as well as a signed yearbook and personal note from famous Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
For his many fans and pro-basketball colleagues around the world, Sunday’s news of Bryant's death was nightmarish.
“I’m stunned, the whole situation is surreal,” Posner said. “It’s difficult to put into words.”