Lower Merion High names a gym after Kobe Bryant

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant hugs teammate Derek Fisher during dedication ceremonies at a new Lower Merion High gymnasium that now bears his name. Bryant led the Aces to the 1996 state championship before turning pro a few months later. Story, D6.
The Lakers' Kobe Bryant hugs teammate Derek Fisher during dedication ceremonies at a new Lower Merion High gymnasium that now bears his name. Bryant led the Aces to the 1996 state championship before turning pro a few months later. Story, D6.
Posted: December 17, 2010

The snow slowed even Kobe Bryant.

On Thursday night, Lower Merion High School's gymnasium dedication started about 45 minutes late because the man to whom it was being dedicated was stuck on slippery roads, behind slow-moving traffic.

When Bryant finally arrived, it was to the rock-star-worthy shrieks of approximately 4,000 folks - kids, parents, and locals - who seem to consider the Los Angeles Lakers star as the epitome of awesomeness.

Bryant's Lakers are in the middle of an Eastern swing that will put them on the Wells Fargo Center court against the 76ers on Friday night.

But on Thursday, it was all about the Lower Merion version of Bryant, the high school sensation who led the Aces to the 1996 PIAA state basketball championship and then skipped to the NBA a few months later.

Thursday's lineup featured the school's marching band, dancers, an a cappella performance, and many speakers, including the Lakers' Derek Fisher and Bryant himself.

"It's not Showtime," joked Lower Merion principal Sean Hughes, "but we do like to throw a party at Lower Merion."

Bryant, formerly of Wynnewood, donated $411,000 to fund the facility - part of Lower Merion High School's newly completed $100 million campus, which opened this fall.

"He's someone that doesn't like to come back to a lot of fanfare," said school district spokesman Doug Young. "This was a chance for us to honor his contributions."

In reminiscing about the parade after the Aces' 1996 state title, speaker Wendell Holland, a "distinguished alumnus" (and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission) said: "It was like the Phillies in 2008 and it is like we're going to be with the Eagles in February of 2011."

That brought a round of applause.

Fans - some of whom paid up to $250 a ticket to attend Thursday's fete - milled around high school halls decorated with photos and news clippings chronicling Bryant's standout senior season.

All of Thursday night's ceremony was dedicated to the growing legacy of Lower Merion's most famous alumnus: Bryant, a five-time NBA champion at age 32.

"Just seeing the work ethic, just seeing the time, I was there," remembered Aces teammate Jermaine Griffin. "I watched Kobe put in that work. You talk about dedication, attitude, determination, that dude KB, that's where it's at."

The list of speakers was wide-ranging, from Bryant's high school coach to his high school English teacher, Jeanne Mastriano.

"You sustain us, you inspire us, you gladden our hearts," Mastriano said. "I treasure the fact you're a part of our family. I love you for that. Thank you."

When it came time to name the high school's new gymnasium, there was really no competition, said Shira Barlas, student council president.

"He will always be a part of this school, this community, and this family," she said.

The stories told about Bryant were filled with nostalgia.

Bryant's coach at Lower Merion, Gregg Downer, even pointed out one crucial, little-known, fact: that Bryant still wears his Lower Merion shorts under his Lakers shorts.

"When the game is over, no more cameras, lights are off, he's not the kind of guy who'd typically sign up for something like this," explained Fisher. "This is not his kind of thing. . . . That's the part of Kobe that I think is so greatly appreciated."

Bryant himself spoke only briefly, admitting that public speaking made him nervous.

"This is where I came from. This is where I grew up," Bryant said. "I didn't go to college. This is my university. This is where my memories lie."

Bryant concluded: "I'm going to calmly put myself out of my misery and slide back to my seat."


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.

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