Column: Starting with his favorite cheesesteak haunt, Kobe Bryant's spirit is all over Philadelphia

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I arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on a recent Friday evening tired, hungry and with places to go.

The Liberty Bell wasn’t on my mind, or even Independence Hall. I was looking for Kobe Bryant’s Philadelphia.

The late Los Angeles Lakers superstar spent the majority of his life in Southern California — but he never forgot his hometown. It’s where his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, starred at La Salle University and played for the 76ers. Where Kobe first achieved national prominence as a prep superstar at Lower Merion High School in the suburb of Ardmore before skipping college to go pro.

Bryant regularly swung by his favorite places while playing for the Lakers, even as Philly fans booed him and even after his retirement.

“I always come back. Always,” Bryant told the Associated Press in 2007 during a visit to his alma mater. “I’ll never forget what the school has done for me, what the city has done for me.”

There are no official tours of Bryant spots across the city, but I was able to cobble one together on the flight from John Wayne Airport to Philadelphia. After dropping off luggage at my hotel, I hit my first stop: Larry’s Steaks, a sandwich shop in the Wynnefield neighborhood that makes Bryant’s favorite Philly cheesesteak.

It’s across the street from St. Joseph’s University, where a teenage Bryant regularly scrimmaged against pro basketball players. Larry’s is where he went in 2015 the day after announcing his retirement, as well as the source of the frozen cheesesteaks regularly shipped to Newport Coast, where Bryant lived during his Laker years.

A line of locals stretched out the door when I arrived. Large takeout menus on glossy paper contained multiple shots of Bryant, along with the message, “You will always be remembered!!” The menus also advertised the Kobe Bryant Special: a full-sized sandwich with sirloin and provolone and nothing else, for an impressively affordable $6. I added sides of Philadelphia snack favorites TastyKakes and Utz potato chips, out of respect for Bryant and his good taste in food.

A large photo of Bryant with the owner of Larry’s hung in the main dining room alongside posters hailing the 76ers and the Eagles. I thought the restaurant’s homage to its most famous client was a bit underwhelming. Then I headed to a nook in the back.

Alongside three booths were multiple photos of Bryant with the restaurant’s employees and customers. In others, he is with friends in that exact nook, now named Kobe’s Corner. A poster shows him wearing an Eagles beanie while hanging out with his daughter Gianna above the words, “Goodbye Kobe, Gianna Bryant. You will forever be missed” — a replica of a banner that hung outside Larry’s the day after the two died with seven other people in a 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas.

Kobe’s Corner showed Bryant at his purest — just a regular guy who loved his family and friends, liked to grub down with them, and happened to be one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet.

I stepped outside to wait for my Uber back to the hotel, stuffed and satisfied. Then I glanced above the restaurant’s marquee. A screen flashed local news footage of Bryant chowing down on a cheesesteak while grinning and giving a thumbs up. The words “Rest in Peace” scrolled through every once in a while.

George Austin, 61, joined me.

“He was a legend — so tragic how he died,” said Austin, who had just finished a cheesesteak combo. We jabbered about whether Bryant was better than Michael Jordan and the intense rivalry between the Sixers and the Lakers in the 1980s as we waited for Bryant’s face to flash again on the screen. Austin had never noticed it before, and didn’t believe. Finally, a beaming Bryant appeared again.

“That’s him all right,” Austin said. He stayed quiet, suddenly wistful at the sight of Bryant. “Legend.”

It was a sentiment I’d hear again and again during my weekend in Philly.

The following morning, I took another Uber to Lower Merion High School. “They should take down the ‘Lower’ and call it ‘Kobe Marion,’” my driver joked as I got off the car. Students filed in for Saturday workshops as I walked the halls where Bryant once roamed.

He credited his former English teacher, Jeanne Mastriano, for sparking in him a love for the power of narrative, a passion that culminated in his Black Mamba persona and mentality. Mastriano retired in 2020, so I wasn’t able to seek her out. I did pass by hallway posters featuring Spanish words and pictures of Latin American food, which I’m sure Bryant — who loved Mexican food and his Latino fan base and whose widow, Vanessa, is Mexican American — would have appreciated.

Lower Merion’s gymnasium, named after Bryant in 2010 after he donated over $400,000 for its construction, stood at the back of the campus, between the school’s art and music wings — fitting, since Bryant cared deeply about performing arts. The court was closed, but I peered down from second-story windows and admired a wraparound graphic of student athletes, including Bryant, next to the words “Attitude” and “Integrity.” Below that was a banner with his name alongside other members of the men’s basketball team’s 1,000-point club.

I descended down a flight of stairs to the lobby, where tributes to Bryant were everywhere. A replica of his signature — “Kobe” — above the doors leading to the court. A montage of Bryant as a Lower Merion Ace and as an L.A. Laker. A mosaic of Bryant in his high school uniform mid-flight in a layup. A display case with Bryant sneakers, trophies from Lower Merion’s 1996 state title run and a newspaper front page that featured Bryant and his teammates celebrating that championship, the school’s first in over 50 years.

Bryant, though, was just one of many former Aces in the school’s trophy cases. His name was lost in a plaque listing all members of Lower Merion’s basketball Hall of Fame. His photo was superimposed alongside Lower Merion’s 1996 girls’ basketball scoring leader. They were subtle reminders that Bryant, as fierce of an individualist as he was, reveled in being a part of tradition.

I hailed another Uber to my next stop. My driver, Tim Mironidis, initially stayed quiet until he realized where I was coming from and where I was going: a playground where a young Bryant honed his toughness with pickup games.

“Kobe used to come around and talk to people like an average guy,” the Greek immigrant said, adding that his wife had also attended Lower Merion. “He was always nice and cordial. We love our players and our people. If you make friends in Philly, you make friends for life.”

Mironidis dropped me off at the Kobe & Gianna Bryant Dream Court at the Tustin Playground in West Philadelphia. After the deaths of her husband and daughter, Vanessa Bryant has helped open public basketball courts across the country in their names, through a nonprofit. She inaugurated this one in 2022 with help from another nonprofit headed by basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. A plaque described how Kobe “often returned” to Philadelphia and showed his family “all his beloved places in the city,” adding, “Mamba forever.”

Murals of Kobe and Gianna surrounded two full-sized purple-and-gold basketball courts. Along the walls were silhouettes of monarch butterflies, jersey numbers for Kobe (24 and 8) and Gianna (2) and the motto “Dedication Makes Dreams Come True.” Looming over it was Overbrook High, alma mater of three other Philly guys who found fame in L.A.: Lakers icon Wilt Chamberlain, actor Will Smith and former police chief Willie Williams.

A basketball lay at the edge of the courts. How could I not take some shots in honor of Mamba and Mambacita?

Maybe I shouldn’t have: My first five were airballs before I finally hit the backboard. By shot 10, I was exhausted.

In my defense, I hadn’t played hoops in at least 15 years. It was chilly and windy. The basketball was half deflated. But Kobe wasn’t about excuses, so I buckled down and shot some more. I got into a rhythm and made a layup, a shot from the key and a free throw. Next up: a three-pointer. I vowed not to leave until I nailed one.

After 45 or so attempts, I began to reconsider. That’s when a man walking by yelled out in encouragement, “You got it, baby! Kobe’s got you!”

Twenty shots later, I finally got my three. I’ll save a slam dunk for next time.

As I walked down Lancaster Avenue back to my hotel, I passed by abandoned buildings, vacant lots and dilapidated rowhouses. This wasn’t Kobe’s neighborhood, but he cared about it — one of his final visits to Philadelphia was to a local middle school in the spring of 2019. Afterward, he recalled how basketball coaches forced him to take tutoring sessions before letting him play.

“It’s things like that that are extremely important that we just need to heighten more,” Bryant said, referring to the tutoring. “And I’m looking forward to coming here and helping that come back to life.”

Sadly, he never had that chance.

Work precluded me from exploring more of Bryant’s Philadelphia — his childhood home, murals, more. So on a walk to City Hall, I was thrilled to spot an advertisement for office spaces on a storefront window, bearing an illustration of Bryant in a Lakers uniform alongside another Philadelphia hero, Benjamin Franklin. Between them was the message “Create Your Masterpiece.”

Mamba would’ve approved. Oh, how he’s missed — Philly, L.A., everywhere.

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