Shaquille O’Neal has told this story many times on several podcasts. When he first met with Jerry West to sign his deal with the Lakers, Mr. West told him how he just drafted this kid out of high school named Kobe Bryant and said he would be a superstar. Shaq recalls how he was more interested with the amount of zeroes on the paper and wasn’t really paying attention. Before the pen touched the paper, Jerry stopped him and said that the two of them would win multiple championships together. Everyone knows how the story ends, but not too many know about the early Mamba days spent playing high school basketball in a Philadelphia suburb.
Kobe and his family moved back to Philly from Europe when he was 13, just in time for him to play high school ball. He enrolled at Lower Merion High school in 1992, where he played on the varsity basketball team as a freshman and became the first freshman in decades to start for their varsity team. Despite having an unsuccessful freshman year, the Aces compiled a 77–13 record over the next three years with Bryant playing all five positions. During his junior year, he averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 3.8 blocks and 2.3 steals and was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year while also earning a fourth-team Parade All-American nomination.
His outstanding talent attracted the attention from college recruiters hailing from prestigious programs like Duke, Michigan, North Carolina and Villanova. However, after high schooler Kevin Garnett went in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft, Bryant also thought about skipping college for a spot in the league. Opportunities arose for him to be with the NBA’s reach while still in high school, like the time when 76ers coach John Lucas invited Bryant to a work out and scrimmage with the team and play one-on-one with Jerry Stackhouse. Ultimately, the 17-year-old Bryant made the decision to go directly into the NBA after graduation, becoming only the sixth player in NBA history to do so at the time.
In 1995, Kobe attended the Adidas ABCD Camp and earned the senior MVP award while playing alongside future NBA teammate Lamar Odom. In his senior year of high school, Bryant led the Aces to their first state championship in 53 years. During the run, he averaged 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals, and 3.8 blocked shots, leading the Aces to a 31–3 record. Bryant ended his high-school career as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer at 2,883 points, surpassing both Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons.
Bryant received several awards for his outstanding performance during his senior year at Lower Merion. These included being named Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American, a first-team Parade All-American and a USA Today All-USA First Team player.
By the time he was ready to graduate, Kobe’s fame was on national scale, even outside of basketball. In 1996, Bryant took R&B singer Brandy to his senior prom. His basketball skills and SAT score of 1080 would have granted him admission to any college he wanted, but he never officially visited any campuses.
Kobe’s high school legacy has had a lasting impact on his alma mater and the basketball world itself. On December 16, 2010, the school held a sold-out dedication ceremony for Kobe Bryant, naming the school’s new gym after him. Two years later, Bryant was honored as one of the 35 Greatest McDonald’s All-Americans for his high-school play as well as his later accomplishments. To this day, his Lower Merion jersey (No. 33) was dedicated and now hangs over the door in the gym.
On behalf of everyone at Liberty Ballers, we want to wish Kobe a happy birthday and tell him thank you for everything. Mamba out.