Kobe’s basketball roots in Philly might run deeper than you realize
Kobe Bean Bryant’s story is a Philadelphia basketball story — in more ways than most casual observers might know.Listen 2:57
Kobe Bryant was introduced to his hometown with a typo.
On Aug. 24, 1978, The Philadelphia Inquirer tucked a small note into the second page of its sports section. The day before, a 76ers forward named Joe Bryant and his wife, Pam, welcomed their third child into the world at Lankenau Hospital.
“It’s a first son and has been named Cobie Bean,” the paper wrote.
The misprint was fitting.
The boy’s first name — an allusion to Japanese-style Kobe beef — symbolized “Cobie’s” connection to the world beyond Philly. From his globe-trotting childhood to his conquering days as one of the planet’s most popular athletes, Kobe Bryant transcended the Delaware Valley.
But Bryant also belonged to Philly. And that middle name — Bean — was his connection to home. No way the local press would misspell that.
As Philly hoop-heads know, Bean derived from Jellybean — the nickname his dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, would wear throughout his own illustrious basketball career.
Kobe Bean Bryant’s story is a Philadelphia basketball story — in more ways than most casual observers might know.
“He’s a Philadelphian through and through,” said Jeremy Treatman, Bryant’s assistant coach at Lower Merion High School and his first press coordinator. “It’s in his toughness. It’s in his genes.”
“Philadelphia basketball — they play a fierce, ferocious type of ball,” Treatman added. “And Kobe is that.”
Bryant, who died suddenly Sunday in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, would go on to have an up-and-down relationship with the basketball-crazy fans of Philadelphia. But there’s no denying, Philly molded Kobe. And Kobe molded Philly.
Here’s the story behind Kobe Bryant and his hometown.
Before there was Kobe, there was Joe
For decades, the most famous, basketball-playing Bryant in Philly was Joe Bryant.
The 6’9” Bryant was a standout at Southwest Philadelphia’s Bartram High School in the early 1970s. In 1972, as a senior, Joe Bryant was courted by so many colleges that his high school coach, Jack Farrell, told the Inquirer that “we stopped counting the offers a long time ago.”
“My biggest job is not in getting Joe into college — that’s easy — but shielding him from the wolves,” Farrell said.
The elder Bryant was the second-leading scorer in Philadelphia’s vaunted public league in 1972 and made the Inquirer’s All-Area Team.
(That year’s all-star team also included a guard named Ed Stefanski, who would go on to become general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers many decades later.)
Bryant eventually stayed local for college, starring at La Salle University in North Philadelphia for three seasons.
…but that’s not Kobe’s only connection to Philly basketball royalty
In 1972, a rising senior from Roxborough High School in Northwest Philadelphia played alongside Joe Bryant in Philly’s famed Sonny Hill Summer Basketball League.
His name: John Arthur “Chubby” Cox.
Cox would go on to have a stellar college career at Villanova University and the University of San Francisco. The 6’2” guard would eventually have a brief NBA career of his own with the Washington Bullets and go on to become a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.
Cox and Joe Bryant would have simply been a couple of long-ago, summer-league acquaintances if not for one thing: John Cox had a sister.
Her name: Pam Cox.
A West Philly love story
Joe Bryant first encountered Pam Cox in the most Philly of ways: hanging out on the stoop.
Bryant told the Inquirer in 1996 that he and Cox both had grandparents who lived on the same block in West Philadelphia.
“I used to remember her coming to visit her grandmom. I remember one day sitting out on the steps with a lot of friends and everybody saying, ‘Oh, look at Pam, she looks good.’ Everybody else was whistling, and I probably was the only one who said, ‘I’m going to marry her one day,’” Bryant told the paper.
Indeed, after seven months of courtship, the two were wed, said Bryant.
The couple had a pair of daughters, Sharia and Shaya, before Pam gave birth to Kobe, their only son, in August of 1978.
Kobe Bryant was born in Philadelphia because, by that point, his dad was employed by a pretty well-known, local company.
‘Bryant’s a 76er’
That was the newspaper headline on Sept. 12, 1975.
It’s a headline many local basketball fans would have loved to read 21 years later. The Sixers had signed Joe Bryant, then an NBA rookie, to a deal worth more than $800,000, according to the Inquirer.
Bryant was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, who’d moved to the West Coast from Philly about a decade earlier. But Bryant and the Warriors couldn’t agree on a contract, and so the new local team — the Philadelphia 76ers — made their move.
Bryant never quite caught on with the 76ers. He spent four seasons with his hometown team, as a reserve, before stints with the San Diego Clippers and Houston Rockets.
Bryant’s family — Kobe included — followed Joe on his basketball sojourn. It eventually led the family to Italy, where Joe Bryant became a superstar and young Kobe spent much of his youth.
When Joe Bryant’s playing career ended in 1991, the family moved back to the Philadelphia area.
Joe Bryant took a job coaching the girls varsity basketball team at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr. He enrolled his three children at nearby Lower Merion High School where, the Inquirer reported, “they are expected to boost the basketball teams.”
That would turn out to be a slight understatement.
…and Lower Merion soars
Kobe Bryant made the varsity team at Lower Merion High School as a freshman, but the team went just 4-20. Translation: they were bad.
As Kobe grew, that changed in a major way.
By the time Bryant became a senior, Lower Merion had gone from also-ran to powerhouse. And their star guard was widely considered the best high school basketball player in the country.
Stories abound about Bryant’s legendary high school career. Even at that age, Bryant’s singular focus and prodigious talent were well-known.
“He was a different kind of kid,” said Treatman. “He was a kid who was upset when practice was canceled. He was a kid who had a vision of what he wanted in his life. And he went out and made it happen.”
As his crowning achievement, Bryant led the Lower Merion Aces to a state title in 1996.
Speculation ran rampant on where the megastar would attend college. Some thought he’d follow his dad’s footsteps to LaSalle — especially since Joe Bryant was an assistant coach there at the time.
But Kobe stunned many in the summer of 1996, when he announced to a media throng that he would forgo college and enter the NBA draft.
Teammate Dave Rosenberg was sitting alongside Bryant in the Lower Merion High School gymnasium when Bryant made his intentions public.
Rosenberg said most of the folks in that gym couldn’t believe Bryant was skipping college. Many thought it was a grievous error.
“He was probably the only one in that gym who kind of envisioned what his career would be,” said Rosenberg.
Bryant is almost a 76er
And guess who had the first overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft? None other than the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that had once dished out big money for Kobe’s dad, Joe Bryant.
Then Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Stephen A. Smith — before he became a megastar TV personality for ESPN — reported that the 76ers brought the hometown phenom in for a workout. Smith called the move “bewildering” since few scouts saw Bryant as worthy of the No. 1 pick that year.
Apparently, the Sixers agreed. They ultimately bypassed Bryant in favor of Georgetown University star Allen Iverson. The Charlotte Hornets would select Bryant with the draft’s 13th pick and trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Iverson would become a 76ers legend and Hall-of-Famer. But Bryant would surpass him.
Over his legendary LA career, Bryant would win five championships. That included a title over Iverson and the 76ers in the 2001 NBA finals.
The Lakers would win the clinching game in Philadelphia, with Bryant famously telling a Philly heckler: “We’re going to cut your heart out.”
Could it be a Philadelphia love story with a little hate? And could it be a Philadelphia sports story without a little booing?
The answer, in this case, is a definitive “no.”
The season after Los Angeles beat the Sixers for the NBA title, Philadelphia hosted the league’s All-Star game. Bryant led his team to a resounding victory and won the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
It was the first of four times Bryant would win MVP of the All-Star game. But his hometown crowd didn’t seem too pleased with the accomplishment.
After the game, the Philly faithful booed Bryant mercilessly as he accepted the MVP trophy. It made for an awkward scene.
“Home is home and I enjoy coming back,” Bryant said as jeers rained down. “Even though the reception isn’t that warm, I still enjoy coming back.”
A hero’s farewell
Given that he played his entire career for the hated Lakers, Bryant’s frosty relationship with Philadelphia fans may have been expected. But as Bryant aged into one of the game’s greats, the relationship began to thaw.
In December 2015, Bryant played his final NBA game in Philadelphia.
In-arena announcer Matt Cord gave him a thunderous introduction.
“The third-highest scorer in NBA history. The 2008 MVP. Two-time NBA finals MVP. Five-time NBA champion. A six-six guard from Lower Merion High School where he won the title in 1996… number 24…
#Kobe’s last game intro in Philadelphia pic.twitter.com/N8xALE9eJc
— Nick M (@SportsDirectTV) January 26, 2020
The Wells Fargo Center erupted. Fans chanted Bryant’s name.
Bryant would score 20 points, but the 76ers prevailed for their first victory of the season.
Over his career, Bryant would go 18-14 against the Sixers. And every time he visited South Philadelphia, Sixers staffers would make sure to leave him soft pretzels and a cheesesteak from Larry’s Steaks.
Larry’s Steaks unveils banner outside Kobe’s favorite #Philly cheeses take spot: “Goodbye Kobe, Gianna Bryant. You will forever be missed.” @FOX29philly #KobeBryant #RIPKobe pic.twitter.com/X2gOinXOXr
— Lauren Dugan (@LaurenDuganTV) January 27, 2020
The detente between Kobe and Philly fans turned into something approaching a lovefest in Bryant’s post-playing career.
Whether visiting his old high school or making appearances at Philly public schools, Bryant was received warmly by the throngs that once booed him.
Bryant made viral ripples after the Eagles beat the Patriots in 2018 for the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, posted a video of the lifelong Birds fan watching the final play and shaking with joy after the final seconds ran off the clock.
“We won the Super Bowl,” Bryant exclaimed while clutching one of his four daughters. “We won the f-ing Super Bowl.”
One of my favorite Kobe Bryant videos. Nothing but pure joy and happiness coming from Kobe here. pic.twitter.com/ClruOuerkQ
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) January 26, 2020
Philly and Kobe didn’t always feel like a “we.” But it seemed to end up that way.
The basketball phenom from Lower Merion, the son of Jellybean, the child of a West Philadelphia love story — all those versions of Bryant existed before he ever touched down in Los Angeles.
He blossomed on the West Coast, but he was from Philadelphia.
For those who knew Kobe Bryant in his hometown days, the hardest part of his death is not knowing where the Philly kid would have ascended to next.
What other pinnacles might he have reached?
“He was really working hard to write the second chapter of his career,” said Rosenberg, his former teammate. “And unfortunately, folks are not going to be able to enjoy that.”
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