Before they were stars: Kobe Bryant
By the time Kobe Bryant hit his first game-winning shot in the NBA, the process had almost become routine.
Bryant, who left on-lookers awestruck this season with six last-second daggers, had already acted out the moment time and time again, long before even lofting up an attempt in the pros.
Almost every day, a young Kobe would jog to Wynnewood Park, just blocks away from his Philadelphia home, and shoot seemingly endless amounts of jumpers and layups, envisioning what it would be like for one to lift his team to victory.
"That's where I would dream of hitting game-winning shots and winning NBA championships," Bryant told ESPN in April.
But in high school, such heights were still just fantasies (though it didn't take long for most to take notice of the realities presented).
After spending seven years in Europe watching his father, eight-year NBA veteran Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, play for several teams, Kobe returned to the States at 14 and enrolled in Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa.
A student of the game who had been receiving pointers from Joe since he was little, Bryant had instant success in the prep game, becoming one of the first freshmen to start for the Aces' varsity squad in decades.
"I had invited him to scrimmage against our varsity," his coach, Gregg Downer, told ESPN's "SportsCentury," "and after five minutes of play I turned to my assistant coaches and said, 'This guy's a pro.'"
Although the team was a pushover in Bryant's first season, it would be a "juggernaut," according to Downer, by the time he left.
Over Bryant's last three seasons, the Aces compiled a 77-13 record and routinely won by large margins. Close games were so uncommon that false rumors began to surface that Bryant, who played all five positions, used to sabotage games just so he could shine in clutch situations.
As a senior, Bryant averaged 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, four steals and 3.8 blocks a game and helped lead Lower Merion to a 31-3 record and the Class AAAA championship, the Aces' first state title in 50 years. He was also named the Naismith and Gatorade high school player of the year and a McDonald's All-American.
By the end of his career, Bryant was the all-time leading scorer in Southeastern Pennsylvania high school history (2,883 points), surpassing prep legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons.
College offers came from all around the country; at times, Kobe would just hand out unopened recruiting letters to schoolmates in the hallways at Lower Merion, according to friends. But Bryant, who was already hearing comparisons to Michael Jordan, had his sights on the NBA.
The interest was mutual.
"Do I think he could make it in the NBA right now?" then-Nets player personnel chief Hal Wissel told The New York Times in 1996. "Yes, I think he has the skills."
In fact, Bryant was already holding his own against the pros.
Six years before defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals to earn his second NBA championship ring, Bryant played pickup games with several Sixers players at St. Joseph's University. He even beat Jerry Stackhouse, the third overall pick out of North Carolina months earlier in the 1995 NBA draft and an eventual All-Rookie selection, in a game of one-on-one.
"The next day, Dean Smith called me from North Carolina to recruit Kobe," Joe Bryant told The Times.
But Smith's pitches would fall on deaf ears. (Besides, Kobe has since admitted he likely would have only attended the school on the other end of Tobacco Road.) And in May of 1996, he made his decision official.
Decked out in a baggy brown suit and sporting black shades on the top of his shaved head, Kobe announced in a packed Lower Merion gymnasium that he would forego college and become just the sixth player to enter the NBA draft without playing a college game.
His decision was instantly met with backlash. Not only was his jump from the preps to the pros unusual for the time -- a year earlier, Kevin Garnett became the first to do so in 20 years -- but Bryant, who took R&B singer Brandy to his senior prom and was signed as an adidas pitchman before the draft, was viewed as brash and arrogant.
Nevertheless, Kobe held firm to his plan and was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets No. 13 overall in 1996 before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I'm going out there to answer a challenge that I put to myself since the ninth grade," Bryant said after being selected. "I had said to myself that if I had the option to skip college and go straight to the NBA, I would. The option came my way, and I took advantage."
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him at Justin.R.Verrier@ESPN.com.
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