- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — The structured end started at his second home. When Kobe Bryant announced Sunday that he was retiring from basketball, he was aware of the coming schedule. The Los Angeles Lakers would play at home that night. That began his farewell run. Then, a cross-country flight to Philadelphia, where Bryant’s initial starburst occurred. A place that taught him toughness, affinity for cheesesteaks and for basketball steak and potatoes.

“Once I knew for sure what I wanted to do, I kind of looked at the schedule and didn’t want to announce it and have the first game be on the road,” Bryant said. “I looked at the schedule, and thought, ‘You know, can’t wait two weeks.’ I’m not the most patient man in the world, still. When I have my mind made up, I don’t want to go on a road trip and wait two weeks and lie about not having my mind made up.”

Bryant’s farewell tour had a manic beginning in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday night. He was able to walk through his former high school, Lower Merion, about 10 miles north of downtown Philadelphia, on Monday. He hit Larry’s Steaks on 54th and City Avenue that evening.

Then, the self-preservation. He did not attend shootaround at Temple on Tuesday morning. Upon entering a back room jammed with media pregame, Bryant surveyed the small stage he would be speaking from and joked that there was no chair to take the weight off his 37-year-old legs.

“Got to save every ounce of energy in these legs,” Bryant said with a laugh.

When he was introduced, his at times complicated relationship with Philadelphia smoothed. A standing ovation preceded the chanting of his name. Philadelphia fans had not always loved Bryant, who helped the Lakers beat the 76ers for an NBA title in 2001. But, Tuesday night was different. Yellow jerseys populated the stands. Bryant, who promised Sunday he would not cry when being feted around the league, took an emotional blow.

“They got me,” Bryant said afterward as his eyes shined. “I wasn’t expecting that type of reaction, ovation. It was emotional for me and I’m deeply appreciative, beyond belief. Really, really special.

“I can’t express enough the amount of respect and adoration I have for the city. To be able to have this moment here just means everything to me.”

His start produced gasps. Bryant made three of his first four 3-point attempts. The young 76ers were “starstruck,” according to their coach Brett Brown. Though, the magic didn’t last. Bryant finished 7-for-26 from the field and 4-for-17 from behind the 3-point line. The Lakers lost, 103-91. Philadelphia has one win this season. Los Angeles has two.

Bryant’s young days in Philadelphia came with such force they almost seemed unsustainable. Bryant arrived at Lower Merion as a 6-foot-1 eighth grader who could shoot 3-pointers and drive. Back then, he was often referred to as “Joe Bryant’s kid.” His father had played at John Bartram High School, then stayed in the city to play at La Salle. He was drafted 14th overall in 1975.

His son’s odd name quickly became known. Bryant was the first freshman to start on Lower Merion’s varsity team. By the time he was a senior, Bryant was named the high school player of the year by numerous organizations. The Aces won the state title that year, their first in 53 seasons. Bryant finished with 2,883 points, passing Wilt Chamberlain’s Southern Pennsylvania record. The dominance made Lower Merion referenced in a way Power Memorial was when Lew Alcindor controlled New York City.

“Did you hear about Kobe Bryant from Lower Merion?”

“Have you heard about Lew Alcindor from Power Memorial?”

Bryant constructed his Philadelphia lore under Gregg Downer, his coach at Lower Merion. On Tuesday, Bryant thought back to what he learned in the structure of the gym and grime of the city blacktop. Downer pushed. “He didn’t let me skate at all,” Bryant said. Playgrounds spurred his grit.

Downer would shout at his team to be “steak and potatoes.” The thought makes Bryant laugh now. Explaining to the teenagers that they were engaged in “East Coast basketball,” Bryant took a cue.

“I always understood that as being physical,” Bryant said. “With his coaching and mentorship, understand how to put bodies on bodies and be physical with guys. How to take challenges head on.”

The trash talk within the Bryant house was expansive. It prepared Bryant for what he heard outside and in leagues during the summer.

“There’s not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don’t talk trash,” Bryant said. “There’s not one. It’s non-existent.”

He played in the Sonny Hill League when, as an 11-year-old, he found inspiration in irritation. Bryant did not score that summer. Not one free throw, not even a technical attempt.

“That was a turning point for me,” Bryant said. “It really was. That became a big motivating thing for me to make sure that when I came back to the Sonny Hill League, I was ready to play. I was ready to compete with them.”

Downer, still the coach at Lower Merion, received a Phialdelphia 76ers jersey at midcourt before Bryant’s final professional game in the city began. Bryant also received one before the game. The crowd roared when he was introduced and the house announcer ticked off his accomplishments, wisely pointing out Bryant was schooled at Lower Merion.

For one more night, Bryant was a complication for 76ers’ Brown. As an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs from 2002 through 2013, Brown was assigned to decipher the Lakers, and Bryant, when the Spurs entered the playoffs. As the coach for Australia in the Summer Olympics in 2012, he had to again figure out to stop Bryant. Luckily for Brown, there were two Western Conference All-Star Games in between, where Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was in charge of the luminaries, and Brown could enjoy Bryant tormenting someone else.

Bryant’s presence, per usual, hanged over the event, potent enough to discard the reality two horrific basketball teams were about to play. They entered the night with a combined two wins in 34 games. Philadelphia was winless.

After warming up slowly Tuesday, Bryant slapped hands with someone he recognized sitting courtside, then sat down and dropped his head for a five-second moment of peace. The first closure of his final season was under way at home.

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