ARDMORE, Pa. — In late January, mourners lay flowers and jerseys and sneakers in somber tribute outside the gym of Lower Merion High School. Kobe Bryant, its most famous alumnus, had died.
Now another, eerie absence prevails at Lower Merion, its parking lots and classrooms vacant, its gym and playing fields empty, its buses quarantined behind a fence. Every school in Pennsylvania has been ordered closed to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The state basketball tournament has been suspended, with Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia stuck in limbo in the second round. Its coaches and players have no idea when, or if, classrooms and the gym will reopen this spring.
Demetrius Lilley, 17, Lower Merion’s 6-foot-8-inch sophomore power forward, left his basketball sneakers at school and cannot even get in to retrieve them during the lockdown. He runs and rides a bike each day, trying to stay in shape.
“We lost Kobe, who was our Michael Jordan,” Lilley said. “And now we probably lost our season. It’s horrible.”
Perhaps no other high school has been whipsawed quite like this one by tragedy, grief and disruptive uncertainty caused by the two most shuddering occurrences in the sports world this year: the premature death of a superstar and a spreading pandemic.
“It feels heavy here,” said Doug Young, an assistant basketball coach at Lower Merion and a former teammate of Bryant, who died at age 41 with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles on Jan. 26.
“I’m assuming it feels heavy everywhere,” Young, 42, continued, speaking by phone. “It’s a little different here.”
Gregg Downer is in his 30th season as head basketball coach at Lower Merion. He coached Bryant to a state title in 1996 and has won two titles since. This is the time he has been dreading. The sound of no balls bouncing. The emptiness of a day when school is closed and practice is forbidden. When there are no opponents to scout, no video to screen, no health and physical education classes to teach. No sustained routine to take his mind off the loss of his greatest player, who became a close friend.
“It just feels like a hole in the heart that’s possibly going to be there forever,” Downer, 57, said during a series of phone interviews.
Closure, he said, feels more like “therapeutic hope” than reality. Instead, Downer said, there was “just an overall darkness in my life as I try to figure this out.”
He spends his days helping his 7-year-old daughter with her online studies and taking long nature walks. He has taken a cue from Brett Brown, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers whose son, Sam, is a freshman starter at Lower Merion. Brown has advised the Sixers: Find a routine for your day.
So Downer communicates with his players by email. He instructs them to be vigilant about online classes that began Wednesday. To do their homework. To wash their hands and follow other protocols about staying safe in a pandemic. To work out, read a book, watch a movie they’ve never seen. And to be kind to each other.
“Find something that makes the days seem the same,” Downer said. It is a message to his players and to himself.
It appears unlikely that the state basketball tournament will resume anytime soon, if at all. Montgomery County, where Lower Merion is located, is a coronavirus hot spot in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered the state’s schools shuttered for at least two weeks and all nonessential businesses closed. President Trump has discouraged gatherings of more than 10 people.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where they can play this,” Downer said. “How can you potentially put kids in harm’s way?”
Yet, teenagers can feel invincible. The Aces hope they can play again. A young team that lost 12 seniors a year ago coalesced late this season. Its motto has become: Have each other’s backs. Some players continue to shoot hoops in their driveways. Others watch replays of the season’s games. Collectively, the players made a public service announcement about how to maintain proper hygiene in the outbreak, and posted it to Instagram.
“We’re just trying to stay positive,” said James Simples Jr., 17, a senior guard and the team’s leader.
Still, he and his teammates were struck by how Bryant’s death devastated their coaches, who had known him personally. Strong men broke down, Simples said. “That was hard to see,” he said.
And now frustration has set in as the season has been interrupted by a pandemic. Seniors may never wear their high school uniforms again. Hopes to play in college have been left uncertain now that the N.C.A.A. has halted in-person recruiting until April 15.
“I’m learning patience,” Simples said. “Some things are out of your control.”
Last month, Downer and Young, his assistant, flew to Los Angeles for Bryant’s memorial service at the Staples Center. Downer hugged Bryant’s parents and his sisters. He watched tears roll down Jordan’s face as Jordan spoke of Bryant as his “little brother” and told how Bryant had always compared his own career to Jordan’s.
“I’ve never seen something so powerful,” Downer said.
There were the jarring moments, too, walking past T-shirt vendors and murals meant to honor Bryant but that also “signified our worst nightmare” because he was dead, Downer said.
In the hours and days after Bryant’s death, Downer displayed a wounded grace. His feelings were open and raw. He showed his love for Bryant and his numbing grief. He wore Bryant’s Lower Merion warm-up jacket to a news conference, and said, “My heart hurts so bad. My insides hurt so bad. I realized I had lost my hero.”
The hurt continues. And with the coronavirus having canceled school and suspended basketball, things are not easier for Downer. He worries that they might be getting harder. So he tries to find familiar routine. And he keeps Bryant close with the stories he tells:
Bryant once signed so many autographs at a high school tournament in South Carolina, he injured his wrist. He wore his Lower Merion shorts beneath his Lakers shorts. He dropped by school when he was in town with the Lakers to play against the Sixers. He held email strategy sessions with Downer about guarding Boston during the 2010 N.B.A. finals, when Bryant was named the most valuable player for the seven-game series.
Bryant still spoke sometimes to the Aces by speakerphone, right in the locker room, before important games. In the fall of 2018, he hosted the entire Lower Merion team that flew out West, getting the players tickets to a Lakers game, taking them to lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When the school needed a benefactor to refurbish its gym, he wrote a check for $500,000 and said, simply, “Done.”
“He was our heartbeat,” Downer said. “He was everything we aspired to be the last 30 years. We were so proud to say we had helped him on his way. Living his adult life in Hollywood, he could have easily forgotten Lower Merion. He never did.”
Nor did Downer ever forget about Bryant’s ruthless competitiveness. He regularly worked at Bryant’s summer camp. One year, O.J. Mayo, then a guard at Southern California, approached Bryant and asked if they could work out together. Sure, Bryant said, “I’ll see you at 3.”
A day or so later, a puzzled Mayo asked Bryant, “Where were you?”
Bryant replied, “I meant 3 a.m., not 3 p.m.”
At some point, this spring or next fall, basketball and school presumably will resume at Lower Merion. Until then, Downer wonders, how will he fill his days with more than his thoughts?
“As I process this, I have to find a way to move forward,” Downer said. “My team needs me, my family needs me. Ultimately, that’s what Kobe would want.”