Fri. Oct 23rd, 2020

People mourn Kobe Bryant at his high school in PA

Most of the people didn’t know the man they came to honor — at least not really. Most of those who came to lay down flowers, No. 24 and 33 jerseys, candles, teddy bears and basketballs had never spoken to the man they came to mourn.

The news of Kobe Bryant’s death ricocheted around the world on Sunday night. In 41 years, Bryant identified with Italy and Los Angeles, No. 8 and No. 24 — but it all started here, in a leafy suburb 12 miles to the northwest of Philadelphia, at Lower Merion High School.

Between the hours of 6 a.m. and noon on Monday — less than 24 hours after Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash that also took the lives of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others — the shrine set up outside of Bryant’s alma mater had grown by a third. It grew so large that faculty had to move the memorial from the gym’s entrance to an adjacent rectangle of pavement so it wouldn’t block the doors.

Alumni showed up. Local residents came by. Teachers paused on their way into work. Students pressed their noses against the glass doors of the school that looked out at the memorial. A policeman stood watch.

“Honestly, I didn’t realize how much he had impacted my life until I found out the news,” local resident DaVonn Grosvenor said, sniffling. “It’s tough when you lose an icon, when you lose a legend. He had so much more to offer. So I just had to come by and pay my respects. The only way I knew how was on the grounds he walked on once upon a time.”

Once upon a time was the mid-1990s. Before the Lakers and before the championship rings, Bryant dominated here. He was a four-year starter for Lower Merion High, where he wore the No. 33 and scored 2,883 points. Now the court that made him the high school’s leading scorer bears his name — the Bryant Gymnasium.

And outside that gym is where mourners gathered to pay homage to a life cut short. Some folks lingered, snapping photos of the memorabilia as though it were a tourist attraction. Others wept inconsolably. One woman stayed kneeling by a photo of Bryant for well over an hour. One man came and prayed. Another man came with his young son. Students meandered over during free periods. Current student-athletes walked over too.

The day after Bryant’s death, the entire student body was encouraged to wear black to school to mourn the loss of their most notable alumnus.

The school invited select current and former members of the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams to speak with reporters about Bryant. The girls’ basketball team players — juniors Bridget McCann and Alexis Hunter — talked about how Bryant furthered the game for women.

“We walk past his trophy case every day,” Hunter said. “We didn’t think he would go so soon.”

The boys’ basketball players — James Simples III and Matthew O’Connor, who graduated in 2019 — talked about how his death fuels them to go out and compete. But it was the former players — the ones who knew Bryant personally — who spoke about his influence on their lives.

“People don’t really know how to react,” Simples said.

Gui Stewart, who played with Bryant for three years and graduated in 1995, wept as he talked about his friend. The last time they spoke, Stewart said, was when Bryant was in town promoting his children’s book. As he spoke, Stewart wiped away tears.

“It was bigger than basketball, it was deeper than basketball,” Stewart said. “When we see each other, we’re just kind of in that moment and not worrying about anything else. So I am just glad I got a chance to speak with him recently.”

For those who didn’t have the chance to have one final conversation — or maybe one conversation at all — placing a note by Bryant’s photo was their goodbye.

By 2 p.m., school buses began to pull up to transport Lower Merion students back home, and the group that had gathered around the remembrance began to clear. Inevitably, more mourners will show up Monday evening, Tuesday morning and in the days after that. The memories of Bryant will not go away. They are, like Bryant himself, unrelenting, enduring and remarkable.

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