Kobe Bryant knew he had to do something special
After watching Lester Earl jump over a rack of basketballs and dunk to thunderous applause, Lower Merion senior Kobe Bryant knew he had to do something special.
Bryant sat near midcourt with his hands behind his back, then stood up, walked toward the bench and brought three young men onto the floor. One of them was Shawnee (New Jersey) High School senior Joe Amari, wearing his Renegades basketball shorts and a white T-shirt. Amari had just finished second in the Beach Ball Classic’s 3-point contest.
Bryant originally positioned the trio in a straight line under the basket, then changed to a triangle formation with Amari closest to the rim.
“He told me to put my head down,” Amari said Saturday. “The last thing I wanted to do was get injured.”
After a running start, Bryant took off inside the foul line, cleared the three and emphatically slammed the ball through the hoop. The folks at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center went nuts as Bryant’s Lower Merion teammates and others mobbed him..
Though Bryant and Earl, who went on to play at LSU and Kansas and is the father of Villanova freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, were declared co-winners after putting on quite a show during the Beach Ball Classic dunk contest on December 30, 1995, Kobe was unquestionably the breakout star.
Bryant, who went on to become a five-time NBA champion with the Lakers, cemented his status as the nation’s No. 1 high school player at the prestigious 16-team tournament that featured future NBA players Mike Bibby, Jermaine O’Neal, Jason Collier and Shawnee’s Malik Allen, who is now an assistant coach with the Miami Heat.
“You always heard about Kobe in high school and how good he was,” said Joe Kessler, who has compiled 688 wins in his 33 years as Shawnee coach.
The Renegades and everybody else at the Beach Ball Classic had the pleasure of see that firsthand during those five days.
Playing with an injured right thumb that was heavily taped, the 6-foot-6 Bryant averaged 39 points as Lower Merion went 2-1 in its three games. He scored 43 on 18-for-27 shooting, to go along with 16 rebounds, and limited the 6-foot-11 Fuller to 22 points at the other end in a 65-60 victory over Ohio Central Catholic. Bryant’s 117 points is the second-highest in its history, behind only Bibby, who had 118 in his three games that year.
“Talk about a man among boys,” Amari said. “We were used to seeing guys do reverse layups. He’d go reverse and stuff the ball. It was like ‘this isn’t normal.’” His reputation preceding him, conversations would hush when Kobe headed past.
“Growing up over the bridge and being able to witness greatness before the rest of the world knew about it was the coolest thing to see,” Amari said.
As a defending New Jersey state champion and Beach Ball Classic winner, Shawnee competed in the upper-echelon bracket in Myrtle Beach that year, losing in the semifinals. Tournament organizers tried to get the country’s top eight teams, then typically invited eight more schools with elite talents, such as Bryant, for the other bracket.
The year before, with seniors Brian Earl, Brian Bouchard and juniors Allen, JR Gillern — who went on to be a 15-year assistant coach with Kessler at Shawnee — and Chris Zeisler starting, Shawnee won the tournament. The Renegades gave Vince Carter’s eventual Florida state championship Mainland team what would be its only loss of the season in the first round, defeated Tim Thomas and Paterson (New Jersey) Catholic in the semifinals and rolled past future Sixer Vonteego Cummings and Thomson (Georgia) 77-33 in the final.
During Shawnee’s Beach Ball debut in 1992, a Shawnee team with senior Dan Earl, sophomore Brian Earl and freshman Allen was edged by Rasheed Wallace and Simon Gratz for the championship in another star-studded group.
“The Beach Ball Classic is the best Christmas tournament in the country,” Kessler said.
Amari, who scored 1,222 points during his career at Division III The College of New Jersey and ranks fourth in school history in assists and seventh in 3-pointers, was involved in one of the most memorable moments in the event’s 39-year history.
Though Amari had played against Bryant in the Sonny Hill League, scoring 40 points in a head-to-head matchup with Kobe tallying 42, Amari is pretty sure Bryant just grabbed him for his final dunk due to Amari’s proximity. To say he’s fine with it would be an understatement.
Bryant, 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash last Sunday in Southern California.
Tom Moore: email@example.com; @TomMoorePhilly