This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.
Nearly 18 years after Kobe Bryant famously told a heckling fan of the Philadelphia 76ers that he and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates were going to “cut your hearts out,” Bryant returned to his West Philadelphia roots on Thursday to sow seeds of inspiration and inspire members of the next generation.
“When I came back in 2001, I was coming back to handle business as a basketball player. But understanding that the way I grew up and the instincts that I played with all came from here. From having great mentors like [basketball legend] Sonny Hill,” said Bryant when he surprised students Thursday at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philadelphia. “So to be here now and to show a different side of where we can progress as athletes and as people, that we can do things that people say are stupid or silly, makes coming home a wonderful thing.”
He called it “part of a beautiful journey.”
Three years after he retired as one of the greatest NBA players of all time, Bryant, 40, was in town to read and discuss a new novel for which he is the conceptual creator with selected students at Andrew Hamilton School.
Bryant’s visit to the middle school began around 10:30 a.m. with a discussion with students from the Philadelphia Youth Basketball Middle School program.
Wearing a burnt orange Nike sweat suit and Nike sneakers, Bryant, seated in a circle, took part in a roundtable discussion with the students around the novel, “The Wizenard Series: Training Camp.” Written by Wesley King, the book tells the story of a downtrodden inner-city youth basketball team that gets a new coach with mystical powers who teaches the players the value of teamwork.
Randy Butler, fund development and program coordinator with PYB, read the novel with students and helped facilitate the roundtable.
“It’s amazing having our kids to be able to read the book and then to have the creator come and discuss and pick each other’s brains,” said Butler, who informed some students the day before that Bryant was coming. “It’s surreal to have him. They’ve been reading his book but I don’t think any of them thought he’d be here to discuss it with us.”
Later, Bryant surprised a group of students who had gathered in the school’s auditorium. They seemed to recognize that something special was happening in the building. It was confirmed when Bryant strode onto the stage from behind a curtain to a thunderous ovation punctuated with screams of joy and surprise.
“It was a really good experience,” said eighth-grader Khalid Miles. “I listened to him as he talked about the book and about his life lessons. He was really good and down to earth. It’s great seeing a superstar like him in the flesh. He was really down to earth.”
Bryant was at ease and comfortable with the students, who circled him and laughed and joked with him for at least 20 minutes after he finished the more formal sessions. He posed for picture after picture.
Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection, two-time NBA Finals MVP, league MVP and Olympic gold medalist, has continued to stand out even in retirement.
He stunned many in 2018 when his multi-media content company, Granity Studios, won an Oscar, Emmy and an Annie award for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.”
“What people don’t know is I’ve been writing for a long time,” said Bryant, who began to take it seriously while he was a 10th-grade student at Lower Merion High School. “I wrote all the time in the league. So when people saw ‘Dear Basketball’ and wondered where it came from, I tell them that it came from me.”
Despite his accomplishments as a basketball player, filmmaker and now his venture into publishing, Bryant said that his greatest accomplishment is “keeping my family together and having a fourth daughter.”
Bryant, who lives in Los Angeles, told members of the media as got in a black SUV headed to New York that he plans to come back to Philadelphia more often to partner with other groups like PYB.
“No doubt about it,” Bryant said. “When I played here in the Sonny Hill Future League, they made you take a test in English and math before they would let you play. And they provided tutoring. If you missed the tutoring sessions, you weren’t allowed to play any more. It’s things like that that are extremely important that we just need to heighten more. And I’m looking forward to coming here and helping that come back to life.”