Villanova coach Jay Wright was still in the early years of his stint at Hofstra when he was at a recruiting event and got his first indelible impression of Kobe Bryant.
He said that because he was from the Philadelphia area, he often went back during the summers and that Byrant — in part because of his father Joe Bryant had been a 76ers standout — already was forging a reputation. And even though he knew Bryant never would go to Hofstra, he wanted to see him in that competitive environment. What he witnessed was something that he wasn’t accustomed to.
“Sometimes you hear it said of a high school recruit that he looks ‘like a man among boys’ and usually that’s about someone physique or athleticism — this was different,” Wright told Newsday on Tuesday before his eighth-ranked Wildcats faced St. John’s at Madison Square Garden (there was a 24-second moment of silence before the anthem, with it counted down on the shot clock, honoring one of Bryant's uniform numbers with the Lakers).
“What was so impressive was his ferocity [and] his attention to detail," Wright said. "He was like a college player already. He wasn't that impressive athletically — you could tell he was really good. He didn't blow you away like some freakish phenom, but you were amazed at his skill level and attention to detail.”
Wright was back In Philadelphia a year later before Bryant’s senior season at Lower Merion High School and the word on his recruiting was that he’d either go to Duke or to LaSalle, where Joe Bryant had become an assistant coach.
“But people were starting to see that, ‘Hey maybe not.’ He was working out with the 76ers at their training center at thePhiladelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine,” Wright said. “By the end of that summer, everyone in basketball was telling you, ‘He’s already playing with the pros.’ Then he took his team to the state title and no one doubted he’d go to the NBA.”
Wright said it wasn’t long after his 20-year career with the Lakers began that he physically and athletically caught up with the intangibles that he’d first seen.
There was only one chance that Wright got to coach against Bryant, and that was when Bryant was training with the Olympic team and played against the U.S. Select team, a squad made up of top college players not yet ready to play on the U.S. team that included Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker.
“These are guys who would become NBA players, some NBA stars, and Kobe made it clear they had a ways to go,” he said.
Wright and his team practiced on Sunday morning on campus before the news broke that Bryant had been killed in a helicopter accident. He placed calls to those who he knew had been close to the basketball icon. But he was surprised when one of his assistant coaches reached out to him later in the day. The message: the Wildcats players were all hurting and needed to hear from their coach.
“I texted all of them right then, but when we met before our next practice, a lot of them were still crying,” Wright said. He added that on Monday night at the team hotel in New York, the team chaplain met with all the players.
“I didn’t realize the impact [Bryant] had on [my players’] generation,” Wright said. “I would have expected LeBron [James] and [Kevin] Durant. But they idolized him the same as my generation. They grew up watching videos of him before they played. They were heartbroken.”
Being in Philadelphia on the day Bryant died was to see a city in mourning, Wright said.
“People from Philadelphia take a pride in the way he played with toughness and competitiveness,” Wright said. “The Philadelphia basketball player has a grittiness and he embodied that to everyone.”