Philadelphia, Lower Merion mourning loss of Kobe Bryant

KYW Staff
January 27, 2020 - 8:09 am
The memorial outside the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School.

Tim Jimenez/KYW Newsradio

UPDATED: 2:48 p.m.

LOWER MERION, Pa. and PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) —Students coming to class at Lower Merion High School faced a grim Monday morning as they walked past a memorial to NBA star and Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant. Philadelphia is mourning Bryant, who died at the age of 41 with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Southern California on Sunday.

On Sunday night, students, alumni and fans gathered to create a spontaneous memorial of flowers, cards, jerseys, sneakers, and a couple dozen basketballs just in front of the door to the school gym that bears Bryant's name. Lower Merion officials roped off the area, so students and staff can get through one of the gym doors without disturbing the tributes.

The Kobe Bryant Gymnasium came to be 10 years ago, in part, because of a $400,000 donation from the basketball superstar. 

It's hard to overstate how much Bryant meant to the Lower Merion community and to Philly basketball as a whole. Bryant brought national attention to the quiet suburban high school. He is perhaps the school’s most famous alumnus and remained a booster to the end. 

Nick Judero, nearly too overwhelmed to speak, came Sunday to put a basketball by the door. He never met Bryant, but his three sons went to Lower Merion, where Bryant, class of ’96, would come back to visit and remained an inspiration.


"He was a big supporter of Lower Merion hoops, so ... a sad day," Judero said. "I mean, he is how we are identified around the world so this is a difficult time for our community."

Bryant was one of the first players to go to the NBA straight from high school. While other players were introduced by their college, Bryant made the Lower Merion High School Aces famous, leading the team to the state championship. He put his school in the spotlight when he brought singer Brandy to his senior prom. And, he made the school part of his introduction in every game of his career.

School district spokeswoman Amy Buckman said students and coach Gregg Downer took the news hard.

"Our school community will always be grateful for his ongoing generosity to his alma mater," Buckman said, reading a statement outside Bryant Gymnasium, explaining that Downer was too overwhelmed to speak. "Mr. Downer said that he is completely shocked and devastated, adding that Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat."

"He was a big part of this school. Everybody knew him. Everybody knew he went here, and it’s completely sad to hear him pass away," student Josh Axelrod said.

Josh Cheadle, a Penn student from Newport Beach, was making a long-planned pilgrimage.

"I just grew up, Kobe was my guy. A big Lakers fan from Southern California," he said. "I mean, I always wanted to come to Lower Merion High School. I just wish it had been for a better reason."

Shaheem, who drove here from North Philly to drop off flowers, was one of many who came to visit the school on Monday morning. He was born in 1996, the year Bryant Kobe was drafted, but he made sure to keep track of his legendary matchups.

“I’ve watched literal VHS tapes of Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant vs. Allen Iverson. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James,” he said.

And even though Bryant was a Laker, Mychael Briggs from South Philadelphia says his game represented Philly basketball well.

“He didn’t play for the Sixers, but his energy, his vibe, his love for the city. It was great,” he said.

"When you see someone lose their life — and then when their child is with them — everything’s really sad right now. Praying for the family, praying for Kobe, praying for everybody right now."

Donald King from Sharon Hill was also there, wearing a Los Angeles Lakers hat.

"I had to come out and just show my respect to a great guy, a great player and a great man from this area," King said. "I really appreciate everything he has done for the game, he did for the people." 

King says he remembers watching Bryant play in high school and says that you could just tell that he would become a great player.

"Total eruption. It was always exciting. Even high school we knew Kobe was gonna be the man."

Jessica Stuebner, who attended Lower Merion in the '90s with Bryant, recalled on Sunday afternoon an interaction she had with him at the school. Long before he became an NBA legend, she may have asked him for one of his first autographs.


Sixers fans mourn a hometown hero

Sixers fans at Chickie's and Pete's in South Philly registered collective shock after hearing the news on Sunday. 

Tanya Thorp and her husband attended the Sixers and Lakers game Saturday night where LeBron James surpassed Bryant's No. 3 spot in league scoring records. She said James' legacy stands on the shoulders of Bryant's.

"I feel like a family member has tragically passed away," Tanya Thorp said. "You know, Kobe set up the future. LeBron surpassed his record, but Kobe set up a record for LeBron to pass."

Fan Brandon Watson said, like other legends, Bryant transcended basketball, taking the sport to another level. 

"You think about the greats, the Michael Jordans and Magic Johnsons of the world, and you think about Kobe Bryant. He changed the game," Watson said. "It was amazing watching him. ... I mean, you tuned in when you heard Kobe was playing."

Daisha Williams was adamant about Bryant's number, echoing what many of the fans have been saying.

"The NBA has to now retire both those numbers, 8 and 24," she said. "No player should ever wear either of those numbers ever again, like ever."

Mike Bafano said whether you loved or hated him, people had to respect Bryant because, on the court, he was a fighter, but off the court, he was human.

"He was a great player, a true champion, and made everyone around him better. But in his personal life ... everyone has demons that they fight," Bafano said.


Kobe Bryant's favorite cheesesteak

Bryant was never shy about showing his hometown pride — or his fondness for the cheesesteaks at at Larry's Steaks on 54th Street, just across from the St. Joseph's University campus.

Bryant was a regular Larry's customer when he was in town, and he loved to chat with fans and pose for photos and selfies when he stopped in. His photo even appears on the menu.

Staff at Larry's say they are devastated by the news.

"He was from our family here, you know. He was a friendly man and he was kind," manager Moataz Ebid told CBS 3.

Ebid said he saw Bryant six months ago.

"He was here in Philly, and he asked for a cheesesteak for him — like the Belly Filler size, a big size for him — and the root beer. He always got that order."

He says Larry's even filled a special phone order for Bryant once. He called for a sandwich for his Aug. 23 birthday, and the shop packed it up with all the fixings and shipped it across the country to the NBA legend.


Kobe’s childhood neighbor remembers the NBA giant

Tasheed Carr (left) with Kobe Bryant
Courtesy of Tasheed Carr

Tasheed Carr grew up looking up to Bryant before he made it to the NBA. The 34-year-old’s uncle lived two doors down from the Bryant family, so Carr remembers seeing him playing ball in the driveway often.

“Before the world knew him as Kobe Bryant, I had an opportunity to get to know him and be around him,” he said. “He was everyone’s favorite player. I remember being in high school and letting my hair grow out and calling it ‘the Kobe.’ ”

Carr went on to play basketball for Saint Joseph's University. After he graduated in 2009, he worked for Lakers player Rajon Rondo and got to spend time with Bryant while he was on the road.

“I was amazed every single time that he took his time out, no matter where he was. We could be any place, any state, he used to seek me out: ‘Yo Philly, yo Philly, what’s up, ’Sheed?’ And we really used to have great conversations.”

Today, Carr runs Born Leader Family, a nonprofit that uses basketball to inspire youth. He says the Kobe mindset will carry on.

“The Mamba mentality: Whatever you do, go hard at it,” he said. “Leave nothing for chance.”


KYW Newsradio's Tim Jimenez, Pat Loeb, Shara Dae Howard, Mark Abrams, Molly Daly and Cherri Gregg contributed to this report.