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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

'A voice for the voiceless'
Kiley O’Brien ’25, Assistant Features Editor • July 18, 2024
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Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Kobe’s ties to Hawk Hill run deep

The St. Joe’s men’s basketball team wore ribbons on their jerseys commemerating Bryant and his daughter Gianna at a Feb. 1 game against St. Louis University. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Kobe Bryant spent his high school years dancing the line between Lower Merion and West Philadelphia the same way the St. Joe’s campus does. In fact, Hawk Hill has its fingerprints all over the career of the Lower Merion High School alumnus and the legacy he has left in his wake.

Bryant played at nearby Lower Merion and would play pickup basketball on courts across Philadelphia. However, it was on the corner of 54th and City Avenue that Bryant honed his skills for hours on end in the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, the former home of St. Joe’s basketball. He practiced with the Philadelphia 76ers at St. Joe’s during his junior and senior years of high school, and would often find refuge at the Fieldhouse by himself, perfecting a game that would go on to become legendary.

“It’s always so important, where our journey starts, but I guarantee you he would have that one marked on the map, St. Joe’s,” said former St. Joe’s men’s basketball head coach and former Philadelphia 76ers head coach Jim Lynam. “That was one of the pit stops. He had a monster decision to make coming out of high school, and there’s no doubt in my mind that those workouts at St. Joe’s were a big piece of the puzzle in answering the question of was he ready or not.”

Former men’s basketball head coach Phil Martelli was a witness to the work ethic that Bryant demonstrated as a high schooler training at the Fieldhouse. He joined Mike Missinelli on 97.5 The Fanatic to recount stories of Bryant’s greatness beginning to take form during those workouts.

Martelli said that during his high school seasons, he would have games Tuesdays and Fridays, and without fail would be on Hawk Hill on Wednesdays and Thursdays for training, and “rarely did he pick up a basketball,” according to Martelli. Instead, he would work on footwork and strength training. His relentlessness didn’t slow down in the summer, or even on holidays.

“I locked him in the St. Joe’s fieldhouse on July 4th,” Martelli said. “I locked him in the building. The building was closed, there was no security around, I was in there getting ready for recruiting which started on July 5th. I heard the ball bouncing and I poked my head out. Kobe was in there shooting and working out.  I walked in and they were in a full sweat. And something came over me. I said, ‘Listen, you know what door to go out, no one else comes in, and if security comes by just bail coach out and say, ‘Coach just said he’s grabbing his lunch and he’ll be right back’. I locked him in there, he was 16 years old. I don’t think he was worried about fireworks or anything, he was worried about improving his game.”

Bryant’s father, Joe Bryant, is a Philadelphia native and LaSalle University alumnus who was entrenched in the Philadelphia basketball community. Joe Bryant played in the NBA then overseas before returning to Philadelphia to get into coaching. He interviewed with then Head Coach John Griffin along with Martelli, who was an assistant at the time.

“Joe said to us, ‘I have a 13-year-old son that’s been playing in Italy, but when he gets here, he’ll go wherever I’m working’ and he said ‘he’s going to be an all timer’,” Martelli said. “I remember rolling my eyes. John [Griffin] and I had a discussion and said, ‘That’s a really proud dad,’ and here we are today. He is an all timer.”

Former Athletic Director Don DiJulia had a similar experience with Joe Bryant. 

“He [Joe Bryant] says ‘I have one son in eighth grade and he’s a really, really good basketball player,’” DiJulia said. “ He starts telling me stories and I’m thinking in my mind, ‘Wow, has the father kind of gone overboard?’ He didn’t go overboard. He didn’t go far enough.”

Lynam first met Bryant before he reached his teen years, and he could already tell that there was something special about him. According to Lynam, Kobe was a product of the roots of Philadelphia basketball culture.

“The first time I met him, he was very young, 10 or 11 would be my guess,” Lynam said. “It was at [Temple University’s] McGonigle Hall. He was out on the court early, by himself. You see a young kid that’s that serious about what he’s doing. He had a purpose. At a very, very young age, he was charting a path that probably redefined itself as he went forward.”

That path was affected when another St. Joe’s alumnus was part of a decision that changed Bryant’s life and the course of NBA history. John Nash ’67, the former 76ers general manager, had just begun his role as general manager of the New Jersey Nets the summer of 1996 before the draft that saw Bryant enter the NBA.

Bryant has already worked out once with the Nets by the time Nash was brought on.

“I had seen Kobe play in high school and had become familiar with his reputation as a result of my being from Philadelphia,” Nash said. “So now, we’ve had Kobe in twice, we bring him back a third time and we decide he’s going to be our pick.”

The Nets had the eighth pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. The night before the draft, Nash and then Nets Head coach John Calipari had dinner with Joe Bryant and Pam Bryant, Bryant’s mother, informing them that the Nets were planning on picking their son. Calipari and Nash received some pushback from ownership about taking such a young player.

On the day of the draft, Nash received a call from Bryant’s agent and Calipari received one from Bryant himself. According to Nash, they both threatened that if Bryant was drafted by the Nets, he wouldn’t play.

“I said, ‘That’s a bluff, these guys are working us’,” Nash said. “They want Kobe to go to the [Los Angeles] Lakers.”

That night just before the draft, Calipari caved and informed the owners that the Nets would be taking Villanova University guard Kerry Kittles instead of Bryant. Bryant was drafted five picks later by the Charlotte Hornets to be immediately traded to the Lakers.

Nash regrets the decision to this day.

“I knew that Kobe was going to slip through our fingers,” Nash said. “I didn’t know that Kobe was going to be one of the all time greats. All I knew was that he had a very high ceiling. Maybe it was because I’m from Philly, I had an affinity for him. I knew his dad, and I had coached against his dad and his grandfather. I just had this feeling that this kid was going to turn out to be a really, really good player.”

Bryant’s alleged refusal to play for the Nets seems out of the ordinary, given the endless stories of graciousness told by those whom he encountered. Martelli highlighted the memory of Kobe stopping into his office and thanking him each time he used the courts at the Fieldhouse.

“He was always so grateful for the opportunity to practice or play, he always thanked everybody,” DiJulia said. “He was so friendly and affable. His smile, which I don’t think has been written about so much, I think is what made him so engaging, especially worldwide.”

Lynam called it a “charismatic knack” that made Kobe so personable. If you brought up the Fieldhouse, to Bryant he would react with an emphatic “‘Oh wow, St. Joe’s’,” according to Lynam.

“You would feel like you’re a big deal because he made you and his St. Joe’s experience feel like a big deal to him,” Lynam said. “That’s just the way he was.”

Although Bryant didn’t go to college, Hawk Hill was a stepping stone between high school and the NBA and an integral part of his storied life.

“Philadelphia is hurting, the basketball community is hurting, the Philadelphia basketball community, which is very tight, is hurting,” Martelli said. “He was a Philadelphian through and through.”

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