NBA legend Kobe Bryant was a hero to thousands of high school basketball players nationwide, but his visit to a DeKalb County high school and attendance at a game 13 years ago were remembered sentimentally this week after the news of Bryant’s death Sunday in a California helicopter crash.
In 2007, Bryant was 29 and amid the 11th season of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He would lead the NBA in scoring that season. Columbia’s boys basketball team was Georgia’s Class AAAA defending champion under Dr. Phil McCrary, who would go on to win four more state titles with Columbia. He is Columbia’s coach today.
Columbia was sponsored by Nike, and Bryant was a Nike client. So it was arranged that Bryant would come by the school when he was in town that February for the Lakers’ game against the Hawks.
Students were told they’d have a special visitor, but his identity wasn’t revealed immediately. Bryant sat on the stage alongside McCrary in Columbia’s auditorium and answered questions from students.
“It was admirable of him to come by the school to talk with the players and students,” said McCrary, as relayed by Mark Brock, DeKalb County’s athletics specialist for media relations. “He talked with them about how it took hard work and dedication to excel both on the court and in the classroom.”
Bryant posed for photos and signed autographs. Some of the students suggested to Bryant that he come to Columbia’s basketball game the next night. He said he would. He had a game of his own first, though. The Lakes would beat the Hawks 90-83 that night. Bryant scored 27 points.
The next night, Bryant was back at Columbia. He arrived after tipoff of a game against St. Pius and took a seat behind Columbia’s bench with his agent at the time, Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ general manager.
“That night was unbelievable,” McCrary said. “We had planned for him to sit behind the bench and the game was already underway when he got in and got his seat.”
Jordan Lemons, now a paraprofessional at Columbia, was a starter on that Columbia team.
“We got to play a game in front of one of the all-time great NBA players that night,” Lemons said. “That is a memory no one can take away from us. It is still something the people at Columbia take pride in to this day. I’m thankful to him and the people at Nike for making it happen.”
Columbia won the game 63-18. Bryant later complimented the players on their hustle. McCrary said that Bryant later mailed him an autographed basketball.
Bryant perished with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, in the accident. There were no survivors.
“It was tragedy for all involved,” said McCrary. “Life is short and you have to live it to the fullest.”
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