Two days before the semi-final that would lead Lower Merion High School to its first state basketball championship in 50 years, Kobe Bryant broke his nose.
Bryant and teammate Leo Stacy collided as they were diving for the ball during a hard practice ahead of the Aces’ 1996 showdown against Chester High. Panicked, the coaching staff hustled to patch up their star senior, and outfitted him with a face protector to wear on gameday.
“He ripped the mask off,” Aces head coach Gregg Downer, who led the team throughout Bryant’s high school tenure, recalled on Tuesday during an emotional press conference.
“He threw it off the side of the wall. And he said, ‘Guys, let’s go to war!’ From that moment on, I knew we were going to win.”
Fighting tears as he spoke inside Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Downer recounted fond memories of the prodigious young athlete who’d become a lifelong friend.
On Sunday, Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in California along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other victims. He was 41.
The future NBA star and his formative teacher met two years after Downer took the Aces head coaching job in 1990. At the time, the Philly native prodigy was a 14-year-old 8th grader. Over the past two decades, Bryant and Downer maintained a relationship that evolved as the duo’s lives and careers changed gears, Downer said.
Bryant’s untimely death hit the former coach hard. Recalling the moment he learned Bryant was gone, Downer choked back tears.
“We were hoping and praying that this was all a bad joke or this was all a bad dream,” Downer said of Sunday’s news. “As reality began to set in, I broke down in the middle of my kitchen.”
Downer was wearing Bryant’s old warm-up jacket, retired No. 33, which he said had been locked away in storage for 24 years. “The past few days have been poor sleep, poor nutrition and lots of tears,” he continued.
“My heart hurts so bad and my insides hurt so bad. I realized that I that I had lost my hero.”
‘He would want us to get back to the bouncing ball’
Downer coached Bryant through his high school career, from 1992 until 1996. But he knew of the rising young talent years before that, thanks to a friendship with the family.
Kobe’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant once played for the 76ers, and it was through a Bryant-connected basketball club that Downer got his season tickets. His seat? Six spots over from the future NBA All-Star’s grandfather in Section H, Downer said.
Then there was Bryant’s cousin, John Cox, who’s been helping out with the Lower Merion team this season, Downer said.
All those connections ran deep. On Tuesday, the coach offered his heartfelt support to Bryant’s widow and their remaining daughters.
“I badly want to be supportive to Vanessa and the other three girls. I badly want to be there for them any small way that I can be,” Downer said. “And I definitely want to get in touch with Joe and Pam,” Bryant’s parents.
Downer revealed that Bryant had asked his former coach to work with his daughter Gianna, who was a budding basketball star.
“I never got the chance to do that, sadly,” Downer, who has been Lower Merion head coach since 1990, said. “That would have been an amazing thing.”
Working with Bryant permanently changed the Lower Merion basketball landscape, Downer said. “Once we started having success with Kobe, the bar got very high.” Since Bryant left, the team has won two more state titles and 15 league championships.
And they’re continuing the work. Even amid what Downer called a “horrific” tragedy, team practice and games have resumed. Lower Merion boys and girls teams play Tuesday night, the school said.
To commemorate the late superstar, Downer said the first Aces Saturday home game of the season may be dubbed Kobe Bryant Day.
Downer tried to embody Bryant’s intense desire to win and his renowned “Mamba Mentality” during his team pep talk.
“When I try to think about what Kobe Bryant would want to have happen in a situation like this,” Downer said he told his players, “I think he would want us to get back to the bouncing ball as quickly as possible.”