via Brandon Holveck/USA Today
ARDMORE, Pa. – Nine empty chairs sat at half court in the Bryant Gymnasium.
They were spread into groups. The first three represented John, Keri and Alyssa Antobelli. Next, a pair for Payton and Sarah Chester. Lone chairs represented Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan. Another pair was left for Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
About two dozen former Lower Merion basketball players formed a circle around the chairs. They stood with a sellout crowd through a 33-second moment of silence and a roaring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before Lower Merion's first home game since the tragic California helicopter crash.
Assistant coach Doug Young, who played with Bryant at Lower Merion, billed the school's pregame tribute as Kobe's return home — his signed white No. 33 Lower Merion jersey, with the help of Chinese memorabilia collector, was placed among the Lower Merion's state championship banners during the event three years after it had been stolen from the school.
But the emotional weight of what the school and the community lost was inescapable.
At the start of Saturday's game following the tribute, the crowd's attention drifted from the squeaks of the hardwood to each other. Friends and family sat with their arms around one another, heads often bowed, eyes shedding tears or stuck staring into the mystery of loss.
Aside from those in Laker purple and gold and Lower Merion maroon, the crowd wore black shirts given away by the school. The front of the shirts featured the number 33 inside an ace with the words, "THE HEARTBEAT OF ACES NATION." Below a silhouette of Bryant, the back read "WALK TOGETHER FOREVER. ACES BASKETBALL."
Outside a steady stream of fans, many of whom couldn't get a ticket to the game, visited a large memorial that started forming in the hours after the crash. Flowers, jerseys, basketballs, letters and other memorabilia have been left at the shrine throughout the week to honor Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
Between speakers during Saturday's tribute, two artists unveiled paintings dedicated to Bryant. One is a profile of Bryant early in his career with the word "father," across his shoulder. The other shows Bryant's face next to the names of the other victims.
The school also showed a seven-minute highlight video on two large screens at half court. It ended with footage from 2010 when Lower Merion named its gym after Bryant.
The voiceover from Coach Downer said, "every time we take the floor you will be a part of us and we will try to continue to honor the ideals of hardwork and dedication and results."
To say Bryant is Lower Merion's most famous alum would be an understatement. Its very identity is "Lower Merion, the school Kobe went to."
Bryant's achievements at Lower Merion are memorialized on the inner walls of the school's gym in photos masked with maroon and white and the words, tradition, pride, hustle, passion and teamwork. He scored nearly 3,000 points at Lower Merion, and led the school to a state championship in 1996.
After his senior year he entered the NBA draft and, after a draft-day trade, became a Los Angeles Laker. He played 20 seasons with the Lakers, winning five NBA titles, 15 All-NBA selections and the 2007-2008 Most Valuable Player award.
Much of the discussion in the wake of his death isn't centered on those achievements, but rather his ability to inspire and the Mamba mentality — his obsessive and relentless pursuit of greatness.
A day earlier, LeBron James shared a similar sentiment during an emotional tribute at Staples Center, where Bryant created dozens of memories for Los Angeles and basketball fans worldwide.
"I want to continue along with my teammates to continue his legacy not only for this year but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that's what Kobe Bryant would want," James said as part of his first public comments.
Aces head coach Gregg Downer stood beside his daughter during Saturdays Lower Merion ceremony, who wore Kobes old warmup jacket. Four days earlier he wore that jacket when addressing the media for the first time since Bryant's death.
"He taught us how to win," said Downer, who coached Bryant from 1992-1996. "He taught us how to work hard. He taught us how to not take shortcuts."
The Aces got the victory on the court, beating Souderton 42-37 in an overtime thriller.