Kobe Bryant’s JCC Connection: A Personal Recollection

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By David Bellet

9 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. MSNBC morning news break- in: “We have a report of a helicopter crash in the hills northeast of Los Angeles.” The screen goes split and the wreckage is seen ablaze in the distance. “When we get more information, we will pass it along.”

OK, I think: Let’s get back to the news.

At the same time, my iPad is open and I’m challenging myself with the Sunday Times crossword. Not 10 minutes later, the first report comes up on the iPad. “Forty-one-year-old Kobe Bryant among those killed in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.” My first thought, “Geez, that’s not a very common name, but I used to know a guy named Kobe Bryant.” Then I do a quick double-take, shocked and distraught, realizing that this person is one in the same.

The last few days have shown me how many lives Bryant touched in his short life. I feel special and blessed that in many ways he touched me and my family. In July 1992, our family moved to a beautiful community called Wynnewood. My wife Laura and I moved there to raise our two boys, Andrew, who was soon to be 4 and Eric, who was just 4 months old. Being a fitness fanatic and especially one who loved basketball, we joined the local Jewish Community Center within days of moving in.

One of the first people I met at the JCC was a gentleman named Joe Bryant (JB or Bean). I remembered him from my college and professional school days as a big-time scorer at LaSalle College and a role player on the Philadelphia 76ers on some of their most entertaining, yet underachieving teams. They were fun to watch, and JB had a reputation as a guy who knew how to have a good time.

Joe Bryant had a career in Italy and Israel, but he and his family moved back to be with his extended family. JB worked in the fitness center at the JCC, and he was on the coaching staff at LaSalle. He had settled down and was just a sweetheart of a guy. He told me about his son, Kobe, and that I might see him occasionally at the JCC gymnasium.

That September, Kobe Bryant was entering his freshman year at Lower Merion High School. The Bryants lived in a nice split-level home on a beautiful street close to the JCC. It was the one with the basketball court that nobody ever played on because the rim was bent 90 degrees and hanging vertically. I would soon learn why.

Evenings, Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings: They were the best times to get a good run in at the JCC. The young studs would show up in the evenings and Saturdays. Sunday mornings were primarily reserved for the older generation, some of whom could still play a little. Joe Bryant ran with us on Sunday mornings. Life was good.

My first memory of playing basketball with Kobe Bryant was September 1992, his freshman year. The season hasn’t even begun. He was maybe 6-foot, 1-inch, a lean gangly guy, physically unimpressive. That day I got a glimpse of his demeanor on a basketball court. As a player I prided myself on passing, decision making, but especially shooting. My peers called the corner the “office”, as in “get it to Big Dave in the office.” It’s hard to remember, but I guess that was a high percentage shot for me.

Well, early on Bryant hit me for an open jumper in my favorite spot. My beautiful high arcing shot was dead on target, until it hit the back rim. That was the last time he looked to assist me, even though I was repeatedly open for my patented shot.

Bryant was all about winning a game. I hadn’t earned his trust. That was OK with me. We won anyway.

Joe Bryant would continuously update me on his son’s progress, and how the team was doing, and so on. In Kobe Bryant’s sophomore year, Joe Bryant convinced me to go to a game at the Lower Merion gym.

My recollection is that the team was mediocre and, in that game at least, he really didn’t see that much court time. Physically, he looked about the same as he had the previous year. What I do remember about the game was the family support he had. His parents, sister and grandfather were all there in the first two rows. His grandfather sat on the floor in his wheelchair, with his oxygen tank. I got an idea of the support system he had in place. And they were at every single game.

In the autumn of 1994, Bryant entered his junior year at LM. One warm afternoon, I entered the JCC lobby. This lobby had wall-length windows where one could see directly into the gym. I peered into the gym and saw this man doing ballhandling drills by himself. Something amazing had occurred — a gangly kid had transformed himself into a man. He finally had a growth spurt, maybe 5 inches since I’d last seen him and he had obviously spent plenty of time in the weight room.

I watched in awe as Bryant was practicing with one, then two balls at a time. He looked like the famed Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes on his best day. Oh, my God. That was my immediate reaction.

Later that fall, on a Sunday night, I went over to the JCC just to work out. There was only one other person in the gym, working on his jump shot. Maybe he could use some rebounding help? But I could see he was in no mood to socialize. This was a business trip for this man. Just Bryant, a ball and a hoop. He was there for two hours.

The 1994-1995 season began in November with a non-conference game against Sun Valley. I thought this would be a good match up for Bryant and the LM Aces since the district’s leading scorer, Tom Hauer, was playing. My 6-year-old son Andrew was my companion that night. That evening, I made a quick assessment that I had just witnessed the next Michael Jordan. He was so dominant, intense and I could tell he loved and trusted his teammates. Not a prima donna in any way. They were all in awe.

For the next two seasons, Andrew and I went to most games, home or away. Andrew nurtured his love of basketball from these experiences. And talk about father-son bonding? These were special times. I also took Eric to a game or two. He was not quite ready to sit and watch. Being only 2 or 3, Eric would generally spend the game leaping down below the bleachers to retrieve fallen items like gloves or hats. As the season progressed, increasingly large crowds began to show up. The school had to open up extra seating to contain overflow audiences.

I remember a game in Bryant’s junior year. It was at Ridley High School, on a Friday night. He had the flu, I later learned. He decided in that game to become a facilitator. He let everyone else do the scoring. Although they didn’t keep statistics, I believe he had 20 or more assists. If he didn’t decide to be the next Jordan, he could have become the next Magic Johnson. I believe that.

The following day I approached Bryant in the JCC gym. I told him how much I enjoyed the previous night’s game, and how unselfish he was. He was truly appreciative. That day I asked him for an autograph that I could take home for my son. I felt a little strange asking a 15-year-old for an autograph, I admit. He was happy to oblige. He signed a paper towel along with a personal note for his little fan. Andrew was so excited. Only one problem: Andrew forgot to empty his pockets that night and, when the laundry was done, Kobe’s autograph was never seen again.

Another Saturday afternoon pickup game at the JCC: Bryant and I (I know it sounds silly), went after a rebound. Guess who got the rebound? At that moment, I looked down and my right ring finger was splayed and dislocated, wrapped behind my right pinkie. No pain — just shock at the time. The pain lingers to this day. That was the last time I tried to hang with the big boys.

During Bryant’s junior and senior seasons, Andrew and I traveled to so many venues. We went to Drexel to see LM play Roman Catholic and Donnie Carr. We went to the Palestra to watch Bryant play against Richard Hamilton and Coatesville in a district playoff game, and the district finals at Villanova, which the Aces lost. I wanted to share the joys of watching this budding superstar with my friends and family.

I remember an away game versus Germantown Academy, which had its own star in Julius Williams. I bumped into an old acquaintance, Steve Chadwin, who was coaching at Abington Friends and turned out to have an outstanding career and is a member of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He had seen superstars come and go. He coached Michael Jordan in high school (the other Michael Jordan, a good player who had a nice career at the University of Pennsylvania). Chadwin was very much looking forward to seeing Bryant play for the first time. I also sensed a degree of skepticism.

Early in the game, Bryant rose up for a short jump shot and met the defense, so he kept rising, switched the ball to his left hand to avoid the defender and banked it in. Coach Chadwin, who was sitting a row in front of me, turned around and the master of the understatement said, and I quote, “Kid can play.” In coach-speak that means everything.

I enjoyed taking my brother to a playoff game. Bryant didn’t have his best game but managed to drop 50. I was happy to have my father join Andrew and me for a playoff game at a neutral site, Cheltenham High School. The Aces played Norristown. My dad lived and worked in Norristown so he had interest. The highlight of the game was a buzzer beater that Bryant hit from 94 feet, the opposite baseline. The Aces won. Only one problem: The ball had caromed off the gymnasium roof and swished through the hoop, so the basket was no good. The standing room-only crowd would never forget it. They won it in overtime instead.

We travelled to such hot spots as Pottsville and Hershey. We saw the Aces win the state championship against Erie Cathedral Prep. They tried to slow the game down. Boring game, with LM winning, but they scored maybe 47 points as a team. You would never have known that Bryant was not at his best. They won; Bryant was absolutely thrilled. To him it was all about the winning. We went to the parade celebration in Ardmore.

To top off his senior year, Bryant was named to the McDonald’s All-American Team, and played in its all-star game. I was excited to watch the nationally televised game. Shortly after turning it on, I switched the TV off. These high school games are all about showcasing talent, and I had trouble watching Bryant in these formats. Playing a game of “can you top this” is contrived and no one cares about the outcome.

There were these rumors floating around that Bryant more than held his own against NBA-caliber talent — that he took all stars like Jerry Stackhouse to school in local workouts. So naturally the big subject on sports talk radio was “does Kobe need a year or two of college or is he NBA ready.” I had no question what the answer to that one was.

Bryant was picked by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th selection in 1996 and was immediately traded to the Lakers for a center. The Sixers drafted Allen Iverson with the first pick in the draft. He was an exciting player who gave his best efforts, but his style turned me off to the NBA. Teams win, not individuals. You need a great individual to make everyone else better and to take over at the end of the game. Bryant had it, Iverson didn’t, in my opinion.

Since Bryant’s became centered in Los Angeles, I followed him only peripherally. He came back to Philly once a year to play. I know he was able to overcome an unfortunate interpersonal episode in Colorado, and he garnered five NBA championships along the way. I know Bryant turned out to be a model father and husband, but he also had some private family problems. I have no idea about his relationship with his parents was when he died. I heard he was estranged from them for years before about — what else — money. I hope they were able to reconcile.

It’s been 28 years, and we no longer live in Wynnewood. My boys are grown up. Bryant is no longer with us and that is sad. The kids were so young when we knew him. It feels wonderful to share my memories with them.

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