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Kobe Leads Lower Merion to State Championship – March 23, 1996

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OHver-RATED, OHver-RATED, OHver-RATED

OHver-RATED, OHver-RATED, OHver-RATED; throughout the whole game, the 16 year-old junior from Lower Merion High School heard the taunts. When his team’s 77-50 drubbing by the Chester Clippers mercifully ended, many in the standing-room crowd at the Villanova Pavilion might have been convinced that the Chester kids were right. Maybe the young son of former LaSalle and Sixes star Joe Bryant, didn’t quite live up to the hype.

Redemption

A little more than a year later, on March 23, 1996, Kobe Bryant had the last laugh (the first of many). He led his team to the Pennsylvania AAAA championship with a 48-43 win over Erie Cathedral Prep. A sellout crowd of 8,242 at the old Hersheypark Arena (Where Wilt Chamberlain had scored 100 points in a game 34 years earlier) watched the Lower Merion Aces hold off the stubborn Ramblers from Erie Prep.


Three nights before their championship win, in the semifinal, Lower Merion faced a steep challenge. Bryant and the Aces took on their nemesis, Chester, at the Palestra. The most successful team in the history of Pennsylvania high school basketball, the Clippers had won state titles in 1983, 1989 and 1994; and had gone to the finals on seven other occasions.

For the first three quarters, most of the fans in the Palestra crowd grimaced, as Bryant shot a woeful 8-24 from the field, and committed five turnovers. Keep in mind though, the game is played at both ends of the court, and Kobe has been named as an NBA first team all-defensive player, 12 times. So even though he stunk the joint out on offence, when Chester had the ball, their kids, and everybody else in the building, knew that Mr. Bryant was in the house. And, he was solid at the foul line (15-17). Going into the second half, Lower Merion only trailed by two points.

It went back in forth until the Aces built a five point lead with fewer than two minutes to play. But then Chester came back and forced the game into overtime. For the Clippers it was all for naught. In the extra period, the real Kobe showed up, and Lower Merion cruised to the finals.

Bryant also had a slow start against Erie Prep. They held him scoreless in the first period. But in the second quarter he broke out and put up eight points. Still, Lower Merion trailed 21-15 at the half. Then the Aces took a 26-21 lead after scoring the first 11 points of the second half. The Ramblers made another run and led 41-39, but Lower Merion sealed the deal, outscoring Erie Prep 9-2 in the final minutes.

College or the NBA?

The big story then, was not being played out on the hardwood floor. What sportswriters and talk show hosts were buzzing about, was whether or not Bryant was going to skip college and jump to the NBA. ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon was working for the Washington Post at the time. In a column that he might want to retract, or at least modify, Wilbon quoted Lower Merion’s coach Gregg Downer, who said about Kobe, “I’m confident he could become the next Penny Hardaway, the next Grant Hill, the next Michael Jordan.” Wilbon didn’t like that. He wrote, “I wonder if this guy was selling used cars before he became a coach. Comparing a high school kid to Michael Jordan? Can you be any more irresponsible than that? ”

19 seasons (with 17 All Star Game appearances), 32,617 points (as of November 17, 2015), and five NBA Championship rings later; someone should ask Wilbon if would prefer his crow to be sautéed, baked or grilled on a skewer.

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