That is how Overbrook High School is described to almost anybody visiting it for the first time. Overbrook boasts numerous influential alumni, from blockbuster actor Will Smith to Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, but the first time I asked my friend’s father where he went to high school, he told me: “Overbrook — same place as Wilt Chamberlain.”
If Kobe Bryant hopes to supplant Chamberlain as the greatest basketball-playing product to come out of Philadelphia, he therefore has his work cut out for him. On Wednesday, Bryant added to his already immense legend when he became the youngest NBA player to surpass 30,000 points, and by sometime next season he should pass Michael Jordan and Chamberlain himself on the all-time scoring list. But there remains an aura around Chamberlain — not to mention deep-seeded bile toward Bryant — in Philadelphia that may make it impossible for Bryant to ever rise above the Big Dipper in the city’s imagination.
Aside from one relatively safe zone within his native community on the affluent Main Line, trips to his old stomping grounds are hazardous for Bryant. Hard-edged Philadelphians despised Bryant before he led the Lakers to a five-game victory over beloved Allen Iverson‘s 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals, but that certainly did not help Bryant’s case with the locals. In their minds, Iverson was the gritty little player from modest roots who took on goliaths like Shaquille O’Neal, while Bryant was the entitled son of a former NBA player who went to a top public school in an upper-class suburb.
That is a shame, of course. Bryant did not choose to come from a stable home environment, although it is difficult to imagine anybody would pick the alternative, given the choice. There is something sort of perverse about a 6-year-old moving to Italy, learning to speak two foreign languages, and then having that precociousness held against him later in life. By being curious and eager to learn, Bryant made himself an arrogant elitist in some viewers’ minds.
On balance, Bryant actually stacks up against Chamberlain quite well. Within the context of their eras both players were feared and respected by opponents, even if Bryant never dominated the sport the way Chamberlain did. Chamberlain, who was over 7 feet tall and had a nickname for every foot, forced the college and pro game to expand rules changes that had been spawned by the emergence of Bill Russell three years earlier. The formidable Celtics altered their proven, championship-winning strategy against only one team, and that was whichever team Chamberlain happened to be on.
Still, there are areas in which Bryant matches Chamberlain and possibly even surpasses him. Until the shadiness surrounding Chamberlain’s 100-point game is cleared up (and it never will be) the natural way in which Bryant scored his 81 points against the Raptors in 2006 should sit above Chamberlain on the list of most impressive scoring performances. Barring the most improbable comeback in sports — that is, coming back from the dead — Chamberlain will always trail Bryant in championship rings, which now stands at 5-2, advantage Bryant. As a pure Laker, Bryant sits in the pantheon with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor — well above Chamberlain, who played only five seasons in Los Angeles.
Therein lies the problem for Bryant, because no one who is adored by Lakers fans can ever be embraced by Philadelphians, even if he is a native son. Chamberlain was born and raised in Philly, played half his 14-year career there, and still has devotees like Sonny Hill, the guru of amateur basketball in the city, and Harvey Pollock, the official scorekeeper for the infamous 100-point game, to spread the Stilt’s gospel. Bryant’s crew of promoters includes Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, and that is about it.
In June 2010, I sat in a bar in North Philadelphia, just a few miles from where Bryant grew up, watching Bryant’s Lakers play the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. All around me where diehard Sixers fans, who probably ranked the Celtics somewhere between the Taliban and belly button lint on the list of things they would most like to see wiped out of existence. Yet with every miss Bryant recorded in a horrible 6-for-24 shooting performance, the bar’s customers exulted. When Ron Artest hit the dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, they stomped their feet in disgust, because it meant Bryant was going to get another ring.
If anybody really paid that much attention to Bryant’s milestone on Wednesday, chances are the few people in his hometown cheered. In that, there were not so much different from the rest of us. Bryant can pile up all the records and win all the championships he wants, but he can never truly go home again.