Lower Merion Coach on 13-Year-Old Kobe Bryant: ‘This Kid Is a Pro’

Kobe Bryant and Gregg Downer, 2016

Getty Kobe Bryant and Gregg Downer, 2016

While memorials for Lakers legend Kobe Bryant have sprung up around the globe, perhaps none is more poignant than the one at Lower Merion High School, where Bryant was a student before he was selected in the NBA Draft.

Bryant led Lower Merion to a state championship as a senior in 1995, averaging 30.3 points during the Aces’ 31-3 season. He became Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer, moving ahead of Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons. Bryant scored 2,883 career points for LMHS, including 1,047 points in his senior year.

At the height of his career, in 2010, Bryant donated $400,000 to have a new gym built at the school, and it was dedicated as the, ‘Bryant Gymnasium,’ in December of that year.

When news of Bryant’ tragic death in a helicopter crash—along with the death of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others on board—students and members of the Lower Merion community gathered for a Bryant memorial. He would frequently return to the school and provide gear for the basketball teams.

Rows of floral bouquets were laid outside the door of the gym, along with more than a dozen basketballs, a few Bryant jerseys, hats of both the Lakers and Aces.

Amy Buckman, spokeswoman for the school district, told reporters that there would be grief counselors on hand to offer comfort to students. The school observed a 33-second period of silence on Monday morning, she said, because that was his jersey numbers.

Bryant’s High School Coach, Gregg Downer, ‘Devastated’

Buckman also said that Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, who was on the sideline when Bryant was playing, was, “devastated,” by the news and unavailable for comment.

But for a 2016 book project, Facing Kobe Bryant, Downer shared his recollections about Bryant with me.

“I met him when he was 13 years old, he was an eighth grader,” Downer said. “He was playing out at our junior high school. There was a fair amount of buzz about a good player down there. So I went and thought I would have a look. …  Five minutes into that workout, he was so good I turned to my assistant coaches and I said, ‘This kid is a pro.’ He was 13.”

Downer said that he assessed Bryant as a future pro without even seeing the most impressive part of him as a player—his willingness and desire to work.

“When I got to know Kobe, as good as he was just naturally and physically, what was special was the work ethic,” Downer said. “How seriously he took everything even at a young age. He knew what he wanted, he wanted to be a basketball player and he was going to give himself every chance to do that.

“We would have late school openers for snow, for example, and he would come to school anyway and be in the weight room, he would come in the snow. First to practice, last to leave practice, winning every drill and sprint. He was lifting weights, even as a young guy, at a time when lifting weights really wasn’t done for basketball players. And it wasn’t the Lakers’ practice facility. It was a dingy old basement, there wasn’t a lot of heat down there and the equipment was not that good, that was our weight room in our old gym. But he was down there.”

Downer Motivated Bryant by Mentioning Vince Carter

When Bryant was coming up through the prep ranks, he was not considered among the elite prospects—at least not at first. But his hard work paid off.

“Nationally, among the recruiting gurus, he got off to a slow start,” Downer said. “But he was climbing the food chain with the player rankings. From 10th grade to 11th grade, he jumped up. … He went from a 10th-20th prospect from 10th grade heading into 11th grade, to a Top 5 national prospect in 11th grade heading into 12th grade.”

And Downer knew how to poke at Bryant’s ego to get him to push himself. Not that it was hard—just mention some of the accomplishments of others in his class and Bryant would focus on overtaking them.

“There was a guy in Florida named Vince Carter who was ranked similarly to Kobe, and another guy, 6-11, named Tim Thomas who was ranked high,” Downer said. “Those were pretty big names. But once Kobe got a sniff of what the rankings were, and who was ranked around him, he wanted to go after those people, he wanted to beat them.

“After we lost in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs in his junior year, I told him that Vince Carter had a broken wrist, and I read somewhere that even with the broken wrist, Vince Carter still led his high school team to a state championship in Florida. I knew that would get him a little bit, he did not want to think of Vince Carter as better than he. So I would throw in something like that. I knew how to stoke Kobe.”

Downer Remained ‘Proud’ of Bryant As His Career Wound Down

I spoke with Downer during Bryant’s final season, when Bryant was being more open to the media and willing to accept accolades when he visited different arenas. So long programmed to be a villain on the road, Bryant softened in the 2015-16 season.

That was rewarding for Downer.

“His final year, being more open with everybody, being willing to accept all the tributes he got—that was good, I think,” Downer said. “It was closure for him, and I was not sure how he was going to get that. I am happy with his decision to step away, I think it was the correct decision because obviously his body was breaking down and he couldn’t play at a level he wanted to play at.”

Downer’s final thought was about the sadness of considering the NBA without Bryant.

“I had the thrill of meeting Kobe at halftime in Philadelphia with Dr. J, when they played the Sixers,” Downer said. “Myself and Dr. J presented him with a gift. That’s not bad, I figured. So, for me, just being able to watch him grow and develop, see him win championships, I am happy now with the closure of it all. Truthfully, I am going to miss it, I really loved watching what the Lakers were doing. The NBA will be different for me now. But I’m very proud of him.”

Now, though, there’s a deeper sadness in and around Lower Merion. Probably no one feels it quite the way Downer does.

READ NEXT: Kobe Bryant: Where He Ranks in NBA History

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