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The Ones He Left Behind

In the days after Kobe Bryant’s death, it became apparent just how deeply the tragedy would resonate with the people who helped mold him when he was a teenager at Lower Merion High.

From The Rise by Mike Sielski. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

Atop the gray concrete walkway outside the entrance to Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, a makeshift memorial garden was blooming with colors and remembrances: candles and wreaths and sneakers and jerseys, maroon and white for the Lower Merion High Aces, purple and gold for the Los Angeles Lakers, orange and brown from the basketballs, red and yellow from the roses. It had been forty-eight hours since a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, its body white and striped in royal blue and periwinkle, had lifted off from John Wayne–Orange County Airport in Southern California, hovered in circles above a golf course, tried to slice through a fog bank as thick and blinding as gauze, and crashed into a hilly ravine, killing the nine people aboard: Kobe; his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna; the pilot; and six people involved in Kobe’s AAU basketball program, including two of Gianna’s teammates—all of them bound for a tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy, forty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. That was Sunday, January 26, 2020. Now it was Tuesday, a crystalline afternoon in the suburbs west of Philadelphia, the middle of the school day, breezy and chilly. Students, heading from one class to another, stopped to gaze at the items and whisper among themselves. Middle-aged men and women parked their cars blocks away, then walked to the site, as quietly as if they were entering a church. A sixty-four-year-old Lakers fan from central New Jersey, Mark Kerr, drove ninety minutes that day with his wife and nephew, just to visit the memorial, just to feel a connection to Kobe. Three members of the school’s 2006 boys’ basketball team, which had won a state championship ten years after Kobe had led the school to one, set a framed photo there; in the photo was Kobe, sitting on a bench with them. A WNBA player had written a letter to him in lavender ink, in curlicued Palmer method, on lined notepad paper: “I feel selfish for just missing out on what else you would have done with your time with us . . .”


For those two days, Gregg Downer had not watched TV, had avoided listening to any radio reports, and had not stopped once at the site. How many times had he kept his head down and kept striding past it and into the gym? How many times would he have to contemplate what he had lost, what the world had lost, in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains? He couldn’t say, but he knew he couldn’t bear to spend any time there yet. There was so much of him blanketing that ground, too. He was fifty-seven now, his face finely wrinkled and more weathered than it had been when he and Kobe were together, when he was in his early thirties and so boyish that the two of them could have been mistaken for college roommates. They were so close, knew each other so well, respected each other so much, that they might as well have been.

In his kitchen on the morning and early afternoon of that Sunday, Downer had been overseeing a playdate between his daughter Brynn, who was seven, and one of her friends. Whenever Kobe saw Brynn, towheaded and pigtailed, he scooped her up, nuzzled her face, and squeezed her tight as if she were his own, as if she were his fifth daughter. Downer had not become a father until he was fifty, until after Kobe and Vanessa had already had two girls, Natalia and Gianna. There was always a gleam in Brynn’s eyes, Downer noticed, whenever she saw Kobe and the gleam in his when he saw her. But now Brynn and her friend were padding past Downer and his wife, Colleen, and Downer’s phone was buzzing. A reporter. Downer guessed why he’d be getting such a call: The night before, in Philadelphia against the Sixers, LeBron James had moved into third place on the NBA’s career scoring list, leapfrogging Kobe. The sportswriter must be looking for a quote from Downer on the nugget of news. That’s what he told Colleen. He didn’t bother to pick up his phone. But then, for the next ninety seconds his phone didn’t stop, buzzing and jumping so much it seemed possessed by a poltergeist, and finally he went online and read a TMZ post on Twitter, the first report that Kobe was dead, and after Downer prayed for five minutes that the gossip site had gotten it wrong and that some sick internet troll was guilty of a cruel hoax, Brynn’s playdate was over and the Downers’ kitchen was a vale of tears.

He walked upstairs, walked back down again, walked through his front door, and walked around the suburban development where he and Colleen had moved fifteen years earlier, past lawns gone brown and swimming pools shuttered for the winter, past the houses of friends, past all the people who had known for a long time that Kobe’s coach lived in their neighborhood. He could gain no mental and emotional traction. Had this really happened? Who else had been aboard the helicopter? Who already had heard? Would he have to tell people? The other men who had coached Kobe at Lower Merion . . . the long-ago players and teammates who had been Kobe’s closest friends when they were teens and now didn’t often hear from him once he became a star and Los Angeles became his home and they remained Guys Who Had Been Teammates And Friends With Kobe Bryant . . . Jeanne Mastriano, who had taught English at the school for thirty years, who had no formal connection to the basketball program but remained a mentor to Kobe nonetheless, who had coaxed and fanned the intellectual curiosity within him into a fire . . . who would tell them? Tears leaked from him in small, sporadic bursts. On a table in his house, his cell phone continued to hum with calls and texts, each one a thread in a web of horror and grief. He walked home, not knowing whom he should reach out to first, or if he could pick up the phone at all.

A makeshift memorial was quick to spring up outside of Kobe Bryant Gymnasium.

A makeshift memorial was quick to spring up outside of Kobe Bryant Gymnasium.

In the frozen-food aisle of an Acme in Narberth, Pennsylvania, a mile and a half from the high school, Amy Buckman perused the options behind the glass, bags of vegetables crackling and crunching in her hands as she took care of the grocery shopping for her and her husband, Terry. Before the Lower Merion School District had hired her, a 1982 alumna of the high school herself, in March 2018 to be its spokesperson, Buckman had worked for a quarter century as a producer and on-air reporter for Channel 6 Action News, Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate. Terry, home watching TV, texted her. They had been married thirty-two years. He knew what she needed to know.

They’re reporting that Kobe’s helicopter crashed.

He continued to funnel her updates, confirmations, and details as she rushed through the checkout line. She drove home, unpacked the groceries, sent texts to the school district’s superintendent, Robert Copeland; to the high school’s principal, Sean Hughes; and to the district’s facilities director, Jim Lill. I’m going to my office. We’re going to be the news. She called Downer, then Doug Young, who was one of Downer’s assistant coaches, one of Kobe’s former teammates, and her predecessor as the district’s spokesperson. From the somber, halting whisper that was Downer’s voice over the phone, she could tell that he wasn’t up to speaking publicly yet. He gave her one six-word sentence, which Buckman included in the 189-word statement that she wrote there at her desk. It was not merely that her job required her to write the statement. It was that she, unlike Downer or Young or any number of people still tethered to Kobe, possessed the distance and perspective to do it. She had never met him. In her television career, she had covered the O. J. Simpson trial, had interviewed Oprah Winfrey, had produced a morning talk show and spoken with dozens of Philadelphia newsmakers—that was the evergreen term in the business for any chef or senior citizen or nonprofit director who might fill six and a half minutes on an hour-long local TV program, newsmaker—and Kobe had become Polaris in the region’s constellation of celebrities, the newsmaker of newsmakers. Yet they’d never crossed paths. This was not a hindrance to her at this moment. This was an asset. Someone had to be clear-minded enough to speak for the community. Someone had to be the face of Kobe Bryant’s alma mater on the day of Kobe Bryant’s death.

Already the impromptu shrine was spreading, like holy kudzu, from the sidewalk in front of the school’s gymnasium entrance to the doors themselves, and reporters and camera crews were lingering there, interviewing those who had come to the site, waiting to see if they would be allowed inside the school to shoot footage for that night’s newscasts—the trophy case, the memorabilia therein, Kobe’s name on the gym’s walls, the obvious images. At 4:30 p.m., Buckman rooted herself just outside the doors and read the statement.

The Lower Merion School District community is deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing of one of our most illustrious alumni, Kobe Bryant. Mr. Bryant’s connection to Lower Merion High School, where he played basketball prior to joining the NBA, has raised the profile of the high school and our district throughout the world. . . .

Gregg Downer coached Mr. Bryant from 1992 to 1996. Mr. Bryant led the team to the 1996 state championship. Downer said that he is completely shocked and devastated by this news, adding, “Aces Nation has lost its heartbeat.” The entire Lower Merion School District community sends its deepest condolences to Mr. Bryant’s family.

She told the media that they could enter the building and get their footage. They could get it then and only then. No one would let them back in for more on Monday. Monday was a school day. The reporters filed in and gathered their B-roll, pointing their cameras to the sparkling hardwood court and the championship banners hanging inside the gymnasium, to the kaleidoscopic mosaics of Kobe on the walls outside the gym, to the glass trophy case where the school displayed five of Kobe’s sneakers and four framed photographs of him and the 1996 state-championship trophy, the lustrous golden basketball that he held above his head that night in Hershey.

The reporters filed out. The mourners continued to arrive. The carpet of letters and flowers and basketballs—officials eventually collected more than four hundred basketballs, donating many to local boys’ and girls’ clubs, keeping some in boxes and black trash bags that would remain stacked on storage shelves until they could be displayed at the school—snaked all the way to the lip of the entrance, blocking the doors, creating a fire-code violation. Buckman, Hughes, and Lill roped off a nearby section of lawn and began picking up the sheets of paper and the lilies and the roses, carrying them with caution and care, as if they were handling fresh-blown glass, and setting them next to the doors, near withered bushes and a plot of mulch and dirt. It took them until the darkness of early Monday morning to move all the items and clear a path to enter and exit the school, Amy Buckman still in the tan corduroy leggings and black down coat she had worn to the Acme.

Over the two days after the crash, Downer responded to just a few of the calls that he had received Sunday. He remained in the same half daze that he had lapsed into that afternoon, and Hughes had told him not to come in to try to teach. Stay home. Take what time you need. Downer had exchanged text messages with John Cox, Kobe’s cousin, but he had not heard from Kobe’s parents, Joe and Pam. No one had. They had said nothing publicly. Downer hoped he might reconnect with them soon, but until then, there were more immediate matters to which he had to attend. Hughes and Jason Stroup, the school’s athletic director, would be gathering Downer’s players before the team’s regularly scheduled practice to speak to them, and Lower Merion still had a game on Tuesday night. Several of the players had met Kobe during the team’s recent visit to Los Angeles, and Downer didn’t want to leave the task of calming and reassuring them, of speaking with authority about who Kobe was and what he might want them to do now, to Hughes and Stroup. He drove to school for the meeting.

He talked to his players about Kobe’s death in a manner that, he hoped, would resonate with teenage boys. There are a lot of circulating emotions here, guys, Downer told them. We have to get those ten or fifteen emotions down to three or four. When I try to think what Kobe would want to have happen in a situation like this, I think he would want to get back to the bouncing ball as soon as possible. We have an important game Tuesday. We should want to bounce the ball. We should want to squeak our sneakers. We should want to compete like crazy, and we will. Let’s respect that we have our health. Let’s respect that we have the ability to do this, to play basketball, and let’s try to have a heck of a lot of fun while we’re doing it.

He had said nothing publicly since Buckman had released the statement, but now he would have to. A wave of interview requests for Downer had flooded the school district’s offices. In response, Buckman arranged a midafternoon press conference at the administration building with Downer and Young. It was a strategy straight from the textbook of modern media relations, and given the power of Kobe’s fame, it was understandable. Buckman would give the local TV stations and newspapers and websites, and maybe a national outlet or two that might travel a couple of hours to suburban Philadelphia—The New York Times, The Washington Post—one fair and open opportunity to talk to Kobe’s coach in person. Then—and Buckman gathered the thirty reporters on hand and insisted upon this condition—the district wouldn’t allow reporters to ask Downer or anyone else at Lower Merion about Kobe for a good long while. Downer still had a basketball team to coach. He needed time to mourn. Everyone did. So here was your chance, journalists. Take it.

Downer kept in touch with Bryant, including presenting him with a jersey at a 2015 Sixers game.

Downer kept in touch with Bryant, including presenting him with a jersey at a 2015 Sixers game.

One by one, twenty to twenty-five in all, the media members marched into a conference room to stake out their positions for Downer’s appearance. The room held a large, horseshoe-shaped table with thick wooden chairs, and the phalanx of tripods closed off the open end of the shoe. A maroon banner hung behind the table’s head. Set on an easel was a poster-size photo of Kobe that had been snapped during one of his high school games. He was clad in a white jersey and cradled a basketball in his right hand, his mouth open and his eyes turned upward toward a net as he prepared to flip the ball over his head for a reverse layup—a flawless, frozen coup d’oeil of his athleticism and grace on the court.

With Young behind him, Downer stepped into the conference room from a door behind the banner, his thinning, straw-gray buzz cut perfect for the archetype of his profession: He had been a physical-education teacher at the school for more than twenty years. Minutes before, he had dug through a closet in a storage room next to the gym and removed from it a precious artifact: Kobe’s white warm-up jacket from his junior and senior seasons, the number 33 on the sleeves. It had stayed in that closet for twenty-four years since Kobe last wore it—24, Kobe’s first jersey number at Lower Merion, his second jersey number with the Lakers. Was the coincidence odd? Fitting? Maybe both. Downer, as he prepared to meet with the press, had donned the warm-up himself, as if it were a protective cloak. He felt that he had to wear it, that he would be somehow safer and stronger if he did.

“He’s giving me strength in a moment like this,” he said later that afternoon. “Wasn’t sure I could get through yesterday. Wasn’t sure I could keep my emotions together. And I found . . . the ability to do that. It’s coming from him. It means the world to be in a jacket like this. If there’s some sort of small connection between him and me with his warm-up he wore . . .”

He sat at the table’s head; Young sat in the chair to the left, his body bowed toward Downer’s in deference to him. “I appreciate your patience,” Downer said to the assembled media. “The past few days have been poor sleep, poor nutrition, and lots of tears,” and the evidence was obvious—his face puffy, his eyes rimmed red. To his right, in a corner of the room, mingled a loose group of men with connections to the program: former players and coaches, alumni, friends of Downer’s.

The gathering was a testament to Kobe, of course, but to Downer, as well. Kobe’s freshman season with the Aces had been Downer’s third as the school’s varsity head coach. The first time he had seen Kobe play, when Kobe was an eighth grader, Downer had joked, Well, I’m definitely going to be here for four years. Four years had stretched to thirty years. Lower Merion had won fifteen league championships over that time. It won the state title in 1996 with Kobe, then won two more thereafter. Downer had never experienced again a year like Kobe’s senior season—the autograph and ticket demands, the crowds, the media attention, games becoming rock concerts—but without that year, he believed, none of the success that followed would have been possible. “The pathway of our program would be very different had we not met him,” he was saying at the table. “He taught us how to win. He taught us how to work hard. He taught us how to not take shortcuts. The bar got very high. . . . I don’t think the momentum for any of this would have been there if we hadn’t been blessed enough to meet this amazing player and this amazing person.”

He was searching for his words, and the hunt became harder when someone asked him, “Have you talked to anyone from Kobe’s family?” The question cut him. Joe and Pam Bryant had practically been members of Downer’s family, too. Joe, in fact, even served as Downer’s junior-varsity coach during Kobe’s career there. But Kobe’s relationship with his parents had fractured during his years with the Lakers, both because of his decision to marry Vanessa when they were so young—he was twenty-one, and she was eighteen—and because of a dispute with Pam over the handling and sale of some of his personal items and memorabilia. You’re not ready to be married. . . . Yes, I am. . . . I’m going to sell some of your things. . . . No, you can’t. There had been fights and cold wars and temporary reconciliations and the tearing apart again and maybe, still, the faint but lingering possibility that there might yet be full healing . . . all of that conflict, in the end, over stuff—high school jerseys and Lakers jerseys and rings, just stuff, and what did that stuff matter now? The wounds had been deep, so deep, Downer knew, that they had to be the reason Joe and Pam had yet to issue any public comment about their son’s death. Downer had never met Vanessa, but he had maintained his relationship with Kobe. He had seen him three times in the previous eighteen months, had flown his team to L.A., had met up with him in Philadelphia at a book signing. Kobe had published a series of novels for elementary school students in March 2019, and he was giving the books away—not selling them at the signing, giving them away. That was the last time Downer had talked to him in person. He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked to Joe and Pam in person, or at all, and now here was this question, here were these cameras . . .

“I had a wonderful relationship with Pam and Joe. . . . I learned about coaching from Joe, and I think of him in the highest of regards. . . . If they’re out there, I badly want to be supportive of Vanessa and the other three girls. I badly want to be there for them in any small way that I can be. And I definitely . . . uh . . . want to get in touch with Joe and Pam.”

Now he was crying. Now the words stopped.

“Joe and Pam, we lost a great one. I love Kobe, and I love Joe and Pam also.”

He reached for a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade that he had set on the table in front of him. He held it to his lips for a few heartbeats. He wiped his eyes with his right hand, then with his left. There was no sound in the room.

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