Kobe Bryant’s close friend, high school teammate reflects on what he meant to Lower Merion

LOS ANGELES — The loyal high school teammate often spent a significant part of his work day handling interview inquiries about Kobe Bryant. Lately, Doug Young has helped alumni, colleagues and visitors grieve Bryant’s death.

“I’m sad, but strong,” Young told USA TODAY Sports. “There’s undeniable sadness. But I think the strength is from thinking what Kobe might have wanted.”

For most of Bryant’s 20-year NBA career, Young served as the communications director for their alma mater, Lower Merion High School near Philadelphia. Two years ago, Young left the post to work with professional athletes on various storytelling platforms. But after Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash a month ago, Young assumed a familiar role with Lower Merion.

Young helped the school organize a news conference for Aces coach Gregg Downer and some of Bryant’s former teammates, helped the school present a video tribute before a recent game and has remained an assistant coach with the boys’ basketball team. Young plans to attend Bryant’s memorial on Monday at Staples Center with Downer and Bryant’s former high school English teacher, Jeanne Mastriano.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate a life that impacted us,” Young said. “For our own healing, it’s something we all wanted to do. We felt it was important to have someone with Lower Merion roots out there.”

Bryant often credited his Lower Merion roots. He considered Downer one of his muses, along with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, former Lakers assistant Tex Winter and Celtics luminary Bill Russell. Bryant credited Mastriano for inspiring him to launch a storytelling company following his NBA career. He often visited anytime the Lakers were in town to play the Sixers and donated $500,000 in 2010 to refurbish the gym where he developed his craft. Bryant invited Lower Merion coaches and players to work his annual summer camps. Young worked with Bryant informally on his foundation, and had encouraged him about his new career.

It's “a story about this bond that will never be broken here in Lower Merion,” Young said.

Former Lower Merion teammate and friend Doug Young with Kobe Bryant. (Photo: Courtesy Lower Merion High School)

'I was upstaged by this younger kid'

Bryant forged that bond as an eighth grader at nearby Bala Cynwyd Middle School when he worked out with the Aces’ varsity team. Downer watched him play in a scrimmage before turning to an assistant and predicting Bryant would turn pro.

“I was one of the players that day that Kobe was trashing on the court,” Young said.

Young marveled that Bryant could dribble behind his back while driving past defenders and became amused when Bryant spoke Italian with his father, Joe, who had served as one of Lower Merion’s JV assistants after playing professionally in Italy.

And when he was the team’s captain during his senior year, Young became humbled after trying to score on Bryant in a drill.

“I just remember him going up and putting two hands up, and it wasn’t even a blocked shot. He just took the ball from me at the height of my release,” Young said, with a laugh. “I was pissed. I was upstaged by this younger kid.”

Young and Bryant wrestled for the ball. Then, according to Young, Bryant said, “ ‘Doug, get your hands off the ball because this is going to start looking bad.’ ”

“He didn’t want me to look like a fool,” Young said. “So I released my hands from the ball and went to the back of the line. In that moment, I was definitely a complementary piece on the team.”

MONDAY'S MEMORIAL: How Staples Center event can help grieving Vanessa Bryant

After Young graduated, Bryant led the Aces to a state quarterfinals appearance his junior season and helped deliver the program’s first state title in 53 years during his senior season. Bryant also broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Southeastern Pennsylvania school scoring record (2,883 to 2,252) and declared for the 1996 NBA Draft.

As a sophomore at the University of California San Diego, Young heard a local sports talk show host predict that Bryant would become an NBA bust and he called the station.

“ ‘He’s the hardest working person that I’ve ever met,’ ” Young recalled saying. “ ‘If there is anybody that is going to find a way to succeed, it’s him. He’s one of the nicest and most loyal teammates you’re ever going to have. He’s going to be a major, major star. He’s going to succeed as a Laker.' ”

Everyone knows the story by now. Bryant blossomed into a young star, won five NBA championships and became the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer (33,643 points). Young saw how the media and visitors embraced Bryant with the same enthusiasm as his alma mater did.

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