Kobe Bryant touched by gym dedication

LOWER MERION, Pa. -- He had silenced far more hostile arenas than this. He'd hushed crowds in the tens of thousands that were applying pressure so intense one could wear it like a backpack on his or her shoulders. He deflated opposing fans' spirits season and season again with the flick of a wrist and the snap of a net, signifying the aftermath of yet another one of his game-winning shots.

But this time, with half of the intimate crowd of approximately 4,000 at Lower Merion High School wearing his jersey and all of them bursting into standing ovations on several occasions at the gymnasium dedication in his name Thursday, Kobe Bryant was the one who was silenced.

"I'm actually nervous," Bryant said toward the end of his short but sweet address to the crowd on hand to get a glimpse of Lower Merion's most famous alumnus.

"Awwwwww," came back in response, a chorus of folks from the place he considers home, after the five-time NBA champion was so touched by the dedication ceremony that he couldn't even get through the five-minute speech without stammering.

"I'm just very thankful to be back here and very happy that you guys like the facilities," Bryant said of the gym and expanded athletic atrium full of interactive and educational displays, to which he donated $411,000. "This is where I came from. This is where I grew up. I didn't go to college, so this is my university. This is where all my memories lie."

Those memories were brought to life with a "This Is Your Life" feel, with presentations from various people who shaped Bryant's time at the school.

So much so that Lower Merion principal Sean Hughes apologized for the larger-than-life feel of the event honoring a guy who likes to keep his involvement with his alma mater out of the spotlight.

"I hope you'll excuse us for going a little above and beyond tonight," Hughes said. "Hey, it's not 'Showtime,' but we definitely like to throw a party."

The gym features billboard-sized photographs of the history of Lower Merion athletics running along all four walls interspersed with motivational words such as integrity, commitment, passion and pride. One image is of Bryant and his teammates raising the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship trophy; another is of his former coach, Gregg Downer, calling a play.

"You went to work, took no short cuts and tonight you come home to our beautiful new gym [as] the best basketball player in the world," Downer said.

Downer later revealed a secret that odds are only he, Bryant and Bryant's six Lakers teammates in attendance knew about: Bryant wears his Lower Merion shorts under his Lakers shorts during games the same way Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts every game when he played in the NBA.

Derek Fisher, also speaking on behalf of Lakers players Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, who all came to the ceremony, took Downer's claim one step further.

"Many people have said here tonight that Kobe is the greatest basketball player in the world at this moment, and I don't think anyone can argue that point," Fisher said. "To expand upon that, by the time this man's career is done in the next four, five, six years, however many more years he decides to play, he will be in the discussion for possibly the greatest basketball player to ever play. Period."

Seven of Bryant's teammates from the state championship team were on hand as well. Jermaine Griffin told a story of how he and Bryant vowed to win the state title as seniors after getting knocked out of the playoffs sooner than expected as juniors.

"Next time we walk out of this gym [at the end of a season] is because there's no more games left to play, period," Griffin remembered.

Assistant coach Will Carter said the team evokes Bryant's name often to this day.

"He's the benchmark for hard work we point to," Carter said. "He did it with effort and commitment. He's the best player on the planet and he played in our program."

As much as the ceremony focused on Bryant's basketball gifts, it also concentrated on the influence he's had off the court.

Bryant's former English teacher Jeanne Mastriano, whom he affectionately calls "Mrs. M" and keeps in touch with regularly some 14 years after graduating from high school, delivered a touching speech.

"You sustain us, you inspire us, you gladden our hearts," Mastriano said. "I treasure that fact that you are a part of our family. I love you for that."

Said Hon. Wendell F. Holland, class of 1970, toward the start of the evening: "Lower Merion's mantra is, 'Enter to learn, go forth to serve.' Kobe Bryant epitomizes that."

Bryant has had a rocky relationship with Philadelphia fans in the past. The Lakers beat the 76ers in the 2001 Finals for the second of his five championships, but one Philly sports superstar was on hand to show his support.

"It's a good thing whenever you can make that big of an impact that they dedicate a gym for you," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "We all know how he gets treated [in Philadelphia]. I know when we played against the Dodgers he was wearing his Dodgers gear, pretty pridefully too -- but just because he had on his Dodgers hat, doesn't mean he's not Philly."

Bryant addressed the students in attendance before closing his remarks.

"It's very important to me to help the next generation of students that come from here," Bryant said. "I want you guys to continue to have dreams, continue to have goals and don't let anybody say what you can and can't do, because I certainly didn't do that.

"You're going to have setbacks, you're going to have times where you're going to struggle, but you go through that and you demand greatness from yourself. If I ask you guys for anything, I ask you to always remember that as long as you possibly can because I want to see greatness come out of this school."

Tickets for the event ranged from $10 for students to $250 for VIPs and raised money for the school district's educational foundation.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.