ARDMORE, Pa. – Kobe Bryant’s stellar basketball career really began in earnest at Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia. Outside the gymnasium named after him, there is a growing memorial, with people leaving flowers and basketballs – an outpouring of grief for a son of Philly.
Where it all began, there’s disbelief, shock and sadness over his untimely death.
“It's just it's hard to believe,” said Shaheem Cochran-Todd, who stopped by the memorial on Monday. “It's hard to take in.”
Bryant was a legendary athlete around the world and at Lower Merion High, where his extraordinary talents on the court first emerged.
“I know my own children have been traveling in foreign countries wearing their Lower Merion High School t-shirts or jackets, and people all over the world have walked up to them and said, 'Lower Merion! Kobe Bryant!’" said Amy Buckman, spokesperson for the Lower Merion School District. “I mean, this is how we are identified around the world, so this is a difficult time for our community."
It’s difficult and personal said Shaheem Cochran-Todd. He took the day off work Monday to come the memorial and pay his respects to Kobe, who went straight from high school to the NBA.
“It's hard getting there and then you made it without having to go to college? That is unbelievable. So, the guy is phenomenal from beginning to end,” Cochran-Todd said. “You believe, you know what I mean? You believe that it's possible, at that point. So, it gives me chills in 90-degree weather.”
Bryant visited Philadelphia just last year, stopping by a public school there to share with students a new children’s book he created and to give Philadelphia credit where it was due.
“We made the best basketball players,” Bryant said of Philadelphia, before 200 gathered students in March of last year. “We made the best well-rounded individuals.”
Though he played all 20 seasons of his NBA career in Los Angeles, whenever Kobe returned to Philly, he made it a point to stop by Larry’s Steaks – not far from his old high school—for a hometown favorite of cheesesteaks.
“He is from our family here, he was a friendly man,” said Moataz Ebid, Larry’s Steaks Restaurant Manager. “He was kind, and I was just with him six months ago. He was here in Philly and asked for a cheesesteak.”
His loss, though, is profound: not just in the world of sports, but in the city that molded him, where some wonder what may have come next for him.
“That's what hurts the most,” Cochran said. “You know what I mean, because you start to think about what could have been – what he could have accomplished after that.”
School officials say in the coming days and weeks, they’ll be paying tribute to Kobe Bryant, including during this year’s basketball games. It’s a community where they say they knew and loved Kobe Bryant first – before he shared his talents with Los Angeles and the whole world.