ARDMORE, Pa. – Wearing Kobe Bryant’s old warmup jacket plucked from a storage closet at Bryant Gymnasium, Lower Merion basketball coach Gregg Downer tried Tuesday to do what he knew he couldn’t on Monday.
He did his best to keep his emotions in check as he reflected on the sudden, tragic death of Bryant, who he called his “hero” in a statement the school district released Monday night, a day after Bryant died along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in California.
As of Tuesday, Downer hadn’t visited the growing shrine to Bryant outside the gym, filled with flowers and jerseys and notes and basketballs.
“I want to start patching these things together and the next step of this journey is to start looking at stuff like that display,” Downer said during a press conference Tuesday inside a conference room at an administrative building.
He hadn’t watched TV or listened to the radio. His phone had filled with “hundreds” of calls and texts and emails. He heard from the “fraternity of Philly coaches” like Villanova’s Jay Wright; Billy Lange of St. Joe’s; ex-St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli; and Sixers coach Brett Brown, whose son, Sam, is a standout freshman on Downer’s team.
Downer, who coached Bryant from 1992-1996, was in his kitchen Sunday when his life changed. His daughter, Brynn, was having a play date and Downer’s phone rang. He recognized the number of a reporter.
He thought the call was going to be seeking comment on LeBron James passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the night before against the 76ers. So he let the call go to voicemail.
But the texts and calls kept coming. Downer said he saw the TMZ report and “some horrific, unimaginable things were being discussed.”
“For a period of three to five minutes, we were hoping and praying that this was all a bad joke or all a bad dream. As reality began to set in, I broke down in the middle of my kitchen.”
Downer’s voice trailed off.
The coach, now in his 30th season leading Lower Merion, was asked Tuesday about Bryant being his hero. He said he came up with it after Bryant was gone.
“I’m having a hard time processing a lot of this, as many people are,” Downer said. “My heart hurts so bad and my insides hurt so bad that I realize that I had lost my hero. I was so proud to have coached him, so proud every time I saw him, and I never saw a human being seek excellence like him. I’m glad that hero remark is out. It’s accurate. I fully believe that a lot of little kids lost their hero, and a grown man called Coach Downer lost his also.”
Downer recalled the first time he saw Bryant play. Bryant was in eighth grade and his school team had a rule on the amount of passes that needed to be made before a shot was taken. So getting a good look at Bryant was a bit difficult.
“He kept getting benched,” Downer said.
So he invited Bryant to a varsity practice and it wasn’t long into that practice before Downer turned to his assistant coaches and said “this guy is a pro.”
“I knew right away that I was in for the ride of a lifetime as a coach,” he said.
That ride included a 1996 state championship, which was featured on an old poster of a cover of the Main Line Times newspaper, which sat on an easel next to Downer and assistant coach Doug Young during Tuesday’s press conference.
Lower Merion games in the 1990s were like “rock concerts,” Downer said.
“It was his team from the time that he arrived,” said Young, who was two years older than Bryant. “I think of him as an extraordinary teammate who challenged us to do our best. He pushed us.”
“He taught us how to win,” Downer said. “He taught us how to work hard. He taught us how to not take shortcuts. Once we started having success with Kobe, the bar got very high. The bar became a state championship. The bar became, ‘Let’s win 20 games, let’s win Central League championships, let’s win district championships.’ I had a decision after he left. I could lower the bar or keep it high.”
The Aces have won two state championships since Bryant’s departure and 15 Central League titles.
Downer and Bryant remained friends after Bryant went to the NBA. Downer said he followed “every second” of Bryant’s 20-year career and went to as many games as he could. He joined Bryant at his summer camps out west.
The last time Downer saw Bryant was last year when Bryant was in Philadelphia at a book event. He had hoped the post-basketball version of Bryant would lead to a deeper re-connection with the Lower Merion community.
The 2019 Aces took a trip to California last year and spent time with Bryant.
One of the biggest sources of pride for Downer came in recent years as the two shared a bond of being fathers. He said he enjoyed watching Gianna, known as Gigi, blossom from afar.
“There was chatter that I was gonna get a chance to work her out this summer and he wanted me to put my fingerprints on her,” Downer said. “I never got the chance to do that, sadly. That would’ve been an amazing thing.”
The last two days, Downer said he drove Brynn to school, something he normally doesn’t do. He’s given the 6-year-old extra hugs and kisses. He has checked on her multiple times throughout the night and has “put her blanket on her better.”
“This is going to change me in a lot of ways, hopefully some of which will be positive,” he said.
“I’ve already set out to be a great dad, but I want to do even better.”