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December 01, 2015

Like it or not, Philly a major part of Kobe's story

On Monday night, Kobe Bryant took a trip down memory lane. He hit up Larry’s Steaks across the street from Saint Joseph’s University, where he used drive a couple of minutes from Lower Merion to scrimmage against the 76ers as a high school senior.

Bryant also drove by some of the parks where he played hoops as a kid — Tustin Playground in Overbrook and Ardmore Avenue are a couple of safe bets — wondering where the time has gone. This was a very Kobe thing to do, by the way. Although he has lived on the West Coast for almost two decades now, the 37-year-old Bryant spent many of his formative years in the Delaware Valley.

So what did he learn?

“How to be tough, how to have thick skin,” Bryant said before his Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Sixers Tuesday night, his last time as a pro in his hometown (well, the American one).

“There’s not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don’t talk trash,” he said. “It’s just nonexistent. My family were just a bunch of trash talkers, every park I went to there was a bunch of trash talking, and it teaches you how to have thick skin.”

(Oh yeah, we can’t go any further without mentioning how bad Kobe played on Tuesday. After making three of four shots right out of the chute, he shot 4-22 for 11 points. It's time.)

The idea that Philadelphia is the grittiest city in the world can be overblown, but Bryant has proven for 20 years to be one of the toughest MF’ers to ever step on an NBA court, both physically and mentally. So when he says something like that, it carries some weight.

“There’s not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don’t talk trash. It’s just nonexistent."

There are some people that believe, by nature of growing up in Lower Merion, Bryant somehow wasn’t really a member of the Philadelphia basketball community growing up. They are either in denial or don’t have any idea what they are talking about.

Before he played his final NBA game in Philly, Bryant talked about a few of the places where he learned to play the game. The first was at the Sonny Hill League, where he contends he didn’t score a point all summer as an 11 year old.

“I was hoping that maybe I could shoot like a technical free throw,” Bryant said. “Zero points that whole summer, and that became a big motivating thing for me, to make sure when I came back to the Sonny Hill League I was ready to play.”

Bryant clearly came back prepared, and throughout high school he matched up against the likes of Donnie Carr, Rasheed Wallace, and Alvin Williams. You know, Philly guys. To those who think Lower Merion is some faraway distant land, Kobe definitely cut his teeth in the city.

Of course, LM is where he played his high school ball. Bryant led the Aces to a PIAA title as a senior, outdueling John Linehan and bitter rival Chester in a memorable state semifinal at the Palestra along the way. Gregg Downer, who still coaches at the school, was another person who Bryant credits for instilling toughness in him.

“He used to say all the time, ‘This is East Coast basketball, you guys are steak and potatoes, man,’” Bryant said of Downer. “I always understood that as being physical.”

“And so with his coaching and his mentorship, I understood how to put bodies on bodies, how to be physical with guys, and how to take challenges head on,” Bryant continued. “He pushed me, he didn’t let me skate at all.”

None of this is to say that most of the city embraces Bryant (all of the cheering Lakers fans in the building on Tuesday don’t count). Like many things with Kobe, his relationship with Philadelphia is complicated. Only time will tell if that changes.

But Bryant will certainly go down as one of the greatest players of all-time, and the only player on his level from the area is Wilt Chamberlain. This isn’t lost on him.

“We have some of the best basketball players come out of this city,” Bryant said. “To be mentioned with them is a huge honor to say the least.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann