Kobe Bryant had a complicated relationship with Philadelphia, a complicated city. He was born and partially raised in the City of Brotherly Love, having also lived in Italy where his father played hoops. In many ways he was a classic Philly guy, a Catholic, with wit, but also a burning drive to win. By the time he was a senior in high school the city knew it had a burgeoning superstar on its hands, but ultimately that stardom would not belong to his hometown.
Philly is a basketball town, home of the Big 5, Temple, LaSalle, St Joseph’s, University of Pennsylvania and three-time national champion Villanova. It also has a unique basketball identity. When I was growing up, it was expected when you got to the court for a pick-up game that you could play a few zone defenses. When I went off to college at NYU and started playing at the cage on West 4th Street, defense was anathema. The New York guys seemed almost annoyed if you played hard D, their game was all about dazzle.
It’s no accident that Bryant was on 12 all NBA defensive teams, more than any guard in history. Make no mistake, he could dazzle with the best of them, but defense is the hard work of basketball and nobody worked harder than Kobe Bryant. There are legendary high school basketball programs in Philly like Simon Gratz and Dobbins, but Bryant didn’t go to one of those. He went to Lower Merion high school, as suburban as the suburbs get, leafy and learned, practically a public prep school. And he brought it a championship.
Bryant was also a lifelong practicing Catholic. Catholicism is a big part of Philadelphia, as the first American bishop to become a saint, John Neumann, started the first Catholic school system in America in the country’s first capital. As noted above, three of the Big 5 basketball schools are Catholic universities. Bryant didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve exactly, but he didn’t hide it either. Reports say that on the day of his fateful helicopter crash, in which he, his daughter Gianna, and five others lost their lives he had attended Mass.
For many Americans the ways of Catholicism seem strange, and I guess they are. But as one, when I learned Bryant had been to Mass I felt glad. My friend Billy is as Catholic as they come. I remember taking a flight with him once from Geneva to Warsaw, it was a little plane, and I mean a little fragile plane. I glance over at Billy and there he is, rosaries and prayer book out, crossing himself, I thought he was gonna light incense. He was literally preparing to die, which frankly us Catholics do a lot of.
In our Nicene Creed, which we say at Mass, we say that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Knowing that he uttered such words just hours before his passing means a lot. For all his wealth and fame and ability, Bryant was first and foremost a humble child of God. Which is the best thing any of us can hope to be.
When Bryant graduated high school he went directly to the NBA and left Philadelphia in his wake. A few years later he would break the city’s heart as his hated Lakers took down the 76ers in the NBA Finals. It would be wrong to call Bryant a favorite native son of Philly, he wasn’t exactly, but he was one of us. He was a fighter and a good man.
Loss is the greatest teacher, and the lesson we received from Kobe Bryant was one of spirit and determination. He wasn’t just the best player of his generation, he was its hardest working. High praise in Philly is when someone says “you done good.” Kobe Bryant did good and made his sometime hometown very proud.