Written by: Jule Brown, New York University, 2018 PYB Corporate Intern

I’m here because of a dream.

In her sleep, my grandmother saw a building in the suburbs on Montgomery Avenue. Immediately the next morning, she rushed my grandfather to the car to pursue what she saw. Since birth, I lived with my mother and grandparents in Philadelphia just off of City Line Avenue — until the day my grandmother found that building in Lower Merion. She returned from her journey with an application to rent an apartment and soon enough, she packed her family up to follow her intuition. As a 5-year-old, moving 15 minutes the other direction didn’t carry much weight because there were no serious emotional ties to my surroundings yet. I have always been comfortable no matter the location, and my caregivers made whatever place we resided in feel safe. It wasn’t until much later that I understood the implications of this dream and the decision my grandmother made to move our family into Lower Merion Township. Besides the fact that we were moving into an affluent neighborhood, the primary reason for the move was so that I could bask in the endless educational opportunities Lower Merion School District had to offer. An active reader, I possessed an eagerness to immerse myself in books, a key component to my development as a learner. But the one constant in my life that trumped all was basketball. All-day, all night, carrying and eventually dribbling a ball signified the serene comfort the game provided for me. Education aside, what my grandmother hadn’t accounted for was the high school basketball program situated at the top of our block. A program that reached the Pennsylvania state basketball mountaintop in 1996 behind a fiery young coach and a 17-year-old on a mission to be the best.

Nine years after the move, I would go on to play basketball at Lower Merion High School. Without Lower Merion Basketball, I don’t believe I would be the man I am today. By the end of my career, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team that defeated powerhouse Chester High School in the State Championship in 2013. You don’t get to that point though, without acknowledging the sacrifices made by your predecessors. Lower Merion won the State Championship in 2006 behind a group of tough, driven neighborhood kids. Toughness has always been a staple in the program and the desire to win at all costs is expected from each player the moment the ball gets rolling. I stood outside on my balcony in awe of the likes of Ryan Brooks, Garrett Williamson, and Gregg Robbins as they rode down Montgomery Ave with gold medals beaming from their necks. They all exemplified this toughness and that was something I hoped to develop in the near future. Despite the success of the 2006 and 2013, neither of them finish the way they do without the blueprint laid out by #33, the heartbeat of Aces Nation.

The legend of Kobe Bryant engulfs the Lower Merion High School community, and justifiably so. McDonald’s All-American, State Champion, National Player of the Year, 2,000-point scorer  — the best ever. For whatever reason, this simply wasn’t enough for him. It takes a special, daring person to make the jump from high school basketball to the NBA. He’d also have to be somewhat insane to not only enter his name in the draft but survive in the League going forward. With a dream as large as Kobe’s and a work ethic unlike anyone we had ever seen in this game possess, the only question at hand was how long did he want to stay in the League. Injuries eventually hindered his basketball longevity, but in the 20 years that Kobe did play, he left a massive, global footprint. His basketball legacy was solidified by scoring 33,643 points, winning 5 championships, an MVP, making 18 All-Star appearances, and a host of other on-court accolades that stamps him as one of the greatest to ever do it. The nontraditional fashion in which Kobe accomplished these feats is encapsulated by his approach. Armed with a laser focus and intense discipline, anyone that got in the way of his quest to be the best on the floor, he did everything in his power to rise above them. From an outsider’s perspective, or even from those who watched closely, Kobe’s approach reeked of arrogance and a nasty “selfishness” and conceitedness that a lot of people were turned off by. Quite frankly, this arrogance was ingrained in Kobe way before he ever touched an NBA floor. At 17 he was crazy enough to proclaim that he was coming into the NBA to take the lunches of grown men, with shades on top of his head! It’s the most Philly thing I can think of, a true testament to the large chip on his shoulder that Philadelphia citizens alike carry with them every day. Just as our guy Kobe who is Philly to the core, residents in the City of Brotherly Love fight like hell every day to make something of themselves. It’s without a doubt, that the Mamba Mentality he displayed on the floor is what people in Philly and across the globe all so deeply align ourselves with. All due respect to Kobe Bryant the basketball player, but his greatest achievements didn’t occur until after he finished his playing career.

In the Summer of 2018, I was offered an internship at Philadelphia Youth Basketball, a non-profit organization that places an intense focus on using basketball, engaging academic modules, leadership development, and remarkable coaches and mentors to empower young people in the City of Philadelphia as students, athletes, and positive leaders in their communities. To serve in a city so near and dear to my heart meant the world, but to do so while incorporating the teachings of the game made this opportunity a no-brainer. Philadelphia and the game of basketball are synonymous, both working cohesively to provide young people with access to great mentors and most importantly, an opportunity. In light of this connection, I spent a portion of the summer collaborating with the Philly Youth Basketball community to pitch our mission to Kobe. For such a seemingly untouchable figure, we knew that our approach would require both diligence and a distinct sharpness to land on his radar. At the forefront of PYB’s mission is the evolving “Theory of Change,” the idea that it is a necessity to help young people positively change their relationship with learning, school, and intellectual pursuits, as well as their relationships with peers and adults. 

It’s difficult to imagine Kobe having the time or willingness to offer up words of wisdom to his competitors or younger players looking to improve their game. For him to serve as a mentor to up and coming players when he was still on a quest of his own to challenge the greats seems impossible to imagine. But when he did finish the basketball portion of his journey, we saw him actively provide mentorship not only to NBA players but to men and women at the professional and college level who were seeking access into the mind of The Black Mamba. Kobe went from being a closed book during much of his playing career to opening himself up to members of the basketball world who yearned for the insight of a basketball savant. Though his prized post-career challenge was coaching his daughter Gianna’s AAU team. Kobe played a tremendous hand in the development of Gianna and her teammates, all the while serving as a steady advocate for the growth of women’s basketball. In the process of lending his service to others, while continuing to adhere to his principles of hard-work and fearlessness, Kobe devoted time to perfecting his craft in storytelling. So much so that he was able to curate The Wizenard Series, sport-centric novels for young adults to better understand the importance of dealing with internal conflict and the process of growth. The year prior, the unthinkable happened when Kobe won an Oscar for his animated short Dear Basketball. If we had to bet on anyone accomplishing an unfathomable feat, it’d be him. 

With an abundance of new challenges in his life, it’d be hard to imagine Kobe Bryant carving out time to align with the mission of a non-profit from Philly. Kobe didn’t just acknowledge PYB, he surprised students in West Philadelphia with the appearance of a lifetime. In March of 2019, I stood amongst members of the PYB community and Lower Merion Basketball family with laser-focus as Kobe Bryant sat in a roundtable discussion with students at the Andrew Hamilton School. Across from him was his high-school English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, his accredited “Muse.” I shared several previous moments with Kobe, the first as an elementary school kid at a 76ers game. Fearless, I approached Kobe after the game for an autograph, to which he accepted. As a middle schooler, I attended his camp in Santa Barbara, and then as a member of the Lower Merion Aces Basketball program, he stopped by our practice during the year of our State Championship run. His visit to one of PYB’s Middle School Partnership Program schools to read passages from his Wizenard novel was different from any other encounter I had. He arrived in a bright red Nike sweatsuit and a pair of his first Nike Kobe shoes, appearing to signal to everyone in the room that although his occupation had changed, he was still capable of heading down to the gym to compete with anyone who dared. But the true message behind the rare visit to Philadelphia and his attire was that he was simply comfortable being home. I watched as he analyzed passages with the young people, conveying his thoughts as eloquently as he always had, yet still possessing an innate ability to listen to everyone in the circle with intensity and compassion. Kobe’s mind always had an infinite capacity to learn, comfortable in any jungle. At this moment, I questioned whether or not this was the same human being that scowled at opponents in his path, clenching his fists and gritting his teeth to warn the masses that he was out for blood. A guy that would run through a brick wall to achieve his goals, even if it meant outworking his opponents, or potentially damaging his relationships with teammates. Then it hit me: this was still the same guy, just on a different path towards cementing his legacy.

Underneath the ruthless competitor we saw every night, Kobe had a passion for helping others. The will to win at all costs was still within him in this classroom, it was just that he had entered a new phase in his life. He was now a writer, a creator, a mentor, and a coach. This was someone we thought we could see one day, but I don’t think I could have painted this exact picture of the life of Kobe Bryant after basketball. We left the classroom and headed down to the auditorium to watch Kobe share a surprise moment with the rest of the Andrew Hamilton School. On stage, by his side, were his Lower Merion family including Coach Gregg Downer, his English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, his teammate and PYB co-founder Doug Young, and Andrew Hamilton community members. In a structured Q&A session, Kobe stressed the responsibility of each student to have compassion and empathy for others. With every word, I saw that Kobe was content with this current point in time in his life. While we remember him for his on-court feats and competitive drive to win basketball games, he was in search of a new challenge. His affection for storytelling and role as a serviceable mentor to today’s basketball players were noteworthy challenges that he took on with pride. Most importantly, he was out to be the best father and husband he could be. He was a different animal than the one we fell in love with for his determination to be the greatest. He was still the same beast, just the author of a new chapter in his story.

Tragically, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 other victims lost their lives in a helicopter accident on January 26th. Like many across the globe, I sat with my feelings trying to comprehend how such an invincible man could be taken away from this Earth in this manner. Even more hurtful was the loss of his daughter, a spitting image of her father who had so much more life to live. The world lost an icon. Aces Nation lost its heartbeat. I lost my hero. Most notably, his wife and three children lost a husband, a father, a daughter, and a sister. I took the week to figure out the best way to honor Kobe and at the same time process what had just happened. Despite the pain and heartache, I had tremendous support from family and friends who reached out to me to discuss the life and legacy of our hero. I was even able to go home the following weekend, back to the top of my block on Montgomery Avenue to celebrate Kobe Bryant at his gym inside Lower Merion High School. 

Walking into the gym, I thought to myself: how did we get here? It was never supposed to be like this. Not even a year ago I was able to get a glimpse of the evolution of one of the baddest dudes to ever grace a basketball floor. The man who with each breath approached what was in front of him with a passionate fire and the will to be the absolute best version of himself. Kobe was gone — how could we even think about moving forward? My mind raced trying to piece together the loss. It wasn’t until the beginning of the following week that I realized that Kobe Bean Bryant has always lived, and will continue to live inside of us all.

Throughout his playing career, Kobe accomplished great feats but also had his share of struggles as a human being. He made mistakes, seemingly unforgivable ones in the eyes of certain people. Kobe took on the ultimate challenge of pursuing the uncertain journey of being a better husband, and eventually a father to four girls. That would be the true measure of whether or not he had grown from the errors of the past. Basketball was second nature to him, and the work he put in to hone his craft on the floor is evident by the outpour of thoughts, prayers, and messages from those within the game he had an impact on. He took players of all ages, genders, and ethnicities under his wing, passing down teachings of the game so that they could strive towards perfecting their craft as he so intensely tried to do. Even for those of us outside the game, he challenged us to find ourselves, to dare to be curious. 

Whatever profession you choose or opportunity that presented itself, he stressed the importance of learning and being inquisitive. In doing so, it will allow us to tackle anything that life throws at us with confidence. No matter the circumstances, we will be prepared for these moments because we spent time carefully planning how to seize them. Mistakes are inevitable, they come with the challenge of pursuance. It’s how we respond to the low moments of today that dictate the climb towards a better tomorrow. In this new chapter in our lives without Kobe, we must carry over what we have learned from his evolution — in the spirit of continuance. 

It’s not Kobe Bryant the basketball player that I will remember most, but rather the husband, father, coach, mentor, philanthropist, and storyteller. Kobe taught me that to be remembered, rules are meant to be broken. We can’t let others box us into one specific category, or let them think that we don’t have more to offer to this world than we know we’re capable of. It’s important to explore different parts of the world, get to know someone from a different culture, exchange ideas with one another to promote a greater sense of unity this world so desperately needs. We have to keep pushing for the man who bonded us all together through his otherworldly basketball abilities and aptitude for storytelling because it’s what he would want us to do. We have to continue to dream.

To the 7 people who lost their lives: I pray that your families find the strength to continue living out their days. You will forever have a special place in my heart.

To Gigi, a budding basketball enthusiast: I looked forward to seeing your progress in this game that I have grown to love so much because of people like your dad. The basketball world will miss you deeply.

To my mother and grandparents: thank you for dreaming and providing me with every possible resource to make the most out of myself. Without you, I would never have ties to such an incredible human being.

To Kobe: Ci vedremo presto. Family forever.

Mamba out.