Philly is big, but small. An enigma in that way. A city of over 1.5 million in population, but you tend to bump into people or see the same faces around town. Especially in the basketball community. In the mid-to-late 90s, a pair of high tops and a head brimming with hoop dreams carried me from Water Tower in Chestnut Hill to the Narberth summer league and every blacktop in between, searching for good “runs."
One spring, I tried out for the Sonny Hill League. I’m from Hunting Park and I heard there were tryouts in West Philly at the Cobbs Creek Rec Center. I had to catch the subway to City Hall and then the El to 63rd Street. To put it plainly, that was a hell of a trek, but again, you went where the runs were.
It was an intense day on the basketball court for a 16-year-old. Not only was there a who’s who of names and faces you only knew from Ted Silary’s column in the Daily News, it was also hotter than two squirrels wrestling in a wool sock in there.
The tryout was over and people were mulling about shooting around, talking and reflecting when someone came down the steps and was wiping their feet off on the rug. The way the sun shined into the gym when the door opened you couldn’t immediately see who it was, but in stepped Kobe Bryant.
Bryant went around the gym with daps, hugs and handshakes. The tryout was over so I thought he was just passing through. No, he wanted to play.
He laced up his sneakers and they picked up teams. While I was still figuring out whose team I was on and how much I had left in the tank after the cauldron we just auditioned in, the ball was floating in the air for the opening tip.
Everyone went man and Bryant had the ball just over half court when I realized I was guarding him. In my head, I said, “Oh, s---!” Can’t lie to you there. But I also wasn’t about to lose a chance at making the team by shrinking in the moment.
Bryant softly dribbled to his left as I followed him in my defensive stance. The rising senior quickly and abruptly crossed over hard to his right. I was on his hip, but with him. He jumped and so did my entire team as we tried to stop him from coming off the street without breaking a sweat and dunking on all five of us.
A strange thing happened as we rose in the air. In my blind guile for this moment to guard one of the greatest, when he cocked the ball back to throw it into the rim, I hit the ball (and some wrist). But he missed the dunk as I threw off his momentum and the ball ricocheted off the floor and ceiling a few times as the whole gym went, “Oooooooooooo.”
While everyone was losing it over what almost happened, I was next to Bryant at the top of the key as they proceeded to inbound the ball. We were both tugging on our shorts catching another wind when he smacked me on my backside and said, “Good [defense].”
I couldn’t believe it. I played it cool, but that long train ride home back to North Philly was a lot easier.
Happy birthday, Bean. R.I.P.