Local sports columnist witnessed Kobe greatness up close

Marcus Hayes, a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, remembers years of covering Kobe Bryant both in high school and the NBA.

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Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar with daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant during an NCAA women's basketball game. Both of them died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash. (Kirby Lee via AP Photo)

Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar with daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant during an NCAA women's basketball game. Both of them died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash. (Kirby Lee via AP Photo)

On Sunday, basketball great Kobe Bryant was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people in a helicopter crash in California.

News of the crash upset people far beyond the sports world.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spoke with Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Marcus Hayes who wrote about Bryant from time to time.

Good morning, Marcus.

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Good morning, Jennifer.

Marcus, Kobe is connected to our region. He was born here. He went to school here. How else was he one of us?

He was tenacious. He went to Los Angeles to play basketball, but he was very proud and very insistent that he played East Coast basketball. He was a physical player. He played with a lot of grit, with a lot of heart. And he appreciated [all] things Philadelphia. He didn’t always claim Philadelphia to be his own. He was much more Los Angeleno when he left here than he was a Philadelphian, but he was always good to Lower Merion, where he went to high school and won a state championship. And he was always, always incredibly tough. He once shot two free throws with a ruptured Achilles before he left the court. It’s just an astounding legacy that he leaves as a competitor and as a former person from this region.

Yeah, I spoke to some fans around Lower Merion High School, and they were all talking about his work ethic. And you just gave him example right there. So he went straight from high school to the NBA. And you, as a sports writer, had some special Kobe Bryant moments covering him. Let’s start with that assignment that you had to cover one of his big local high school games.

It actually wasn’t an assignment. My coworkers and some of my friends said, “Hey, you got to go see this kid, Kobe Bryant play.” And I said, “OK, well, what college are we going to?” “Drexel.” “Oh, great, he plays for Drexel?” They said, “No, he plays for Lower Merion. It’s a suburban high school. I said, “Are you kidding? It’s my day off.” So I went and I saw Kobe score, I think, 30 points against Donnie Carr and Roman Catholic, which is obviously Wilt Chamberlain’s alma mater. And they lost the game, but watching Kobe was just an otherworldly experience. I’ve never seen a high school player with such a polished game. It looked like he’d been in the NBA for two or three years at that point. And it was a December night. I’m very, very glad I braved the cold and the parking and all of that stuff to to watch him in high school. It was just…he’s the best high school player I’ve ever seen.

And then you jump ahead to 2001 when you were on assignment covering the Lakers side of the Lakers/Sixers in the NBA finals. Let’s talk about that.

It was, you know, the big deal was Allen Iverson, the MVP and against Kobe Bryant, you know, the Philadelphia kid and Shaquille O’Neal was there as well. But the remarkable thing about that series was after the Sixers won the first game, the Lakers won the next four, and after they won game three in Philadelphia, someone suggested Kobe, “Why don’t you just go back to LA?” He says, “Well, we’ve going to cut your hearts out.” And he was asked about that at the press conference the next day before Game 4. And he said, “Yeah, I said it.” And then he did it. They won Game 4 and Game 5. It was just, it was kind of the day Philadelphia and Kobe Bryant finalized their divorce for a while. But it was an iconic moment for Kobe Bryant and Philadelphia, but it underscored who Kobe Bryant was. He was an assassin. He was a mercenary. And he wanted to win at all costs.

And known and loved not only here, and not only across the country, but internationally. Take us to Beijing and the Olympics. You were there.

I was. And that was also an assignment I was reluctant to go on and happy I ultimately did. I was there for Michael Phelps and I was there for Usain Bolt. But the Chinese were there for Kobe Bryant. He’d been going to China at that point every year for about 10 years. And he was kind of the tip of the spear for the NBA, and Nike and China. At one point, Kobe was selling more jerseys in China than Yao Ming, who’s Chinese. He was a Chinese superstar, played for Houston. It was unbelievable. It was like, I’d never been around, obviously, the Beatles or Michael Jackson. It was like covering the Beatles or Michael Jackson. No one has impacted basketball internationally like Kobe, except Michael Jordan.

It appears at the time of the crash, Kobe Bryant and his 13 year old daughter, they were on their way to a youth basketball game. Gianna Bryant was going to play. He was going to coach a teammate of hers. And that player’s family also died in this crash. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that, “Kobe was generous with his wisdom. He saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.” So our memory of Kobe ends with this example of him as a loving father, also a mentor. Much like his own father, Joe Bryant, who played in the NBA and coached.

Yeah, I actually covered Joe Bryant when he was an assistant at La Salle University where Kobe thought about going and ultimately didn’t. But, you know, Joe was generous with his time. Joe was a kind of person who sort of had to work his way to professional basketball and the NBA. And Kobe, you know, Kobe sort of embodied that. He took delight in helping teammates become better as he aged, as he got a little bit older and more removed from the game. He became a mentor to a lot of players, too. And a lot of different sports. He was a very much a renaissance man. And, you know, I don’t know if you care or your listeners care, but I got the news about Kobe Bryant’s death just before I coached my daughter in a travel basketball game. And so, you know, Kobe and I don’t share a whole lot in common, but I understand the passion. I have three daughters myself. I understand the passion he has for helping, giving them knowledge that he has about something that’s very dear to him. So it was very difficult to concentrate on the little travel basketball game I was coaching. Having gotten that news in that context, it was an interesting and difficult day.

Absolutely. And the Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation is a public charity. It’s dedicated to improving the lives of youth and families in need. And so his life off the court was honorable and will continue. Thank you so much. A pleasure to speak with you. Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Marcus Hayes.

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