John Lucas can spot basketball talent. And when he first saw the late Kobe Bryant play, he knew his abilities were something special.
Lucas recalls coming home from a road trip. He was beat because the Sixers back then weren’t very good but competed hard. As he remembers it, his wife, DeEdgra, kept harping about a young man at Lower Merion High School. describing him as pretty good.
“She kept telling me to go to the game and see him,” said Lucas by phone from Utah on Monday. “She kept telling me about him so I just decided to go see what had her so excited.
“I get to the gym and I see JB [Joe Bryant, former John Bartram High School, LaSalle University and Philadelphia 76ers’ standout]. We go back but I was surprised to see him. I asked him why he was there and he said, ‘I’m here to see my son play.’ I said, ‘Who’s your son?’ and he said, ‘Kobe.’ “
What Lucas saw next left him in awe.
“He started the game at center,” Lucas said. “By the end of the game he was playing point guard. I couldn’t believe it. He eventually played every position and he transitioned so well. I’d never seen anything like it.”
That 1994 encounter marked the beginning of John Lucas and Kobe Bryant’s relationship. The two became close. In fact, they became so close that Bryant would workout with the 76ers.
“I had him and a nice young lady, Dawn Staley [now the head woman’s basketball coach of the University of South Carolina], working out with us. They pushed to make themselves better players.
“Kobe loved playing. He loved competing. I had him playing draft prospect we brought in. He took them all on and only one player beat him. That was Antonio McDyess. I ended up drafting one of the guys he beat, Jerry Stackhouse.”
Lucas also had another added advantage: His daughter Tarvia and Bryant were friends. In fact, Lucas said when Bryant took actress-singer Brandy Norwood to Lower Merion’s prom, they were accompanied by Tarvia and a good friend of Bryant’s, Jermaine Griffin.
“My daughter and Kobe remained close friends until he got married,” Lucas said. “And when he would come to Houston, he would make it a point to come by and see me and the family. That was the type of person he was. He knew who he was but it didn’t change him. He was always just Kobe to us. That’s how I’ll remember him.”
Another aspect a young Kobe Bryant that impressed Lucas was the respect he gave others, recalling the time he introduced Bryant to NBA star Michael Jordan.
“He was always polite,” Lucas said. “He kept calling Michael ‘Mr. Jordan.’ He didn’t call him by his first name. That was so refreshing. You could see that JB and Pam [Bryant, Kobe’s mother] did an excellent job of raising him.”