ARDMORE, Pa. – Lower Merion High School waited just six years to retire the number Kobe Bryant (search) wore when he led the Aces to the 1996 state championship. Bryant was only 24, but it seemed like there was no better role model for students.
"This is one of the most remarkable young people I've ever seen," said David Magill, the school district's superintendent when Bryant attended Lower Merion. "He had a work ethic that was just incomparable. He had this incredible gentleness with young children. He was just exceptional."
Now, the high-achieving school on Philadelphia's wealthy Main Line faces the possibility that the number hanging in its gym might someday belong to a felon.
It is a prospect many in Bryant's suburban hometown find hard to believe, and few are ready to take down the banners and photographs celebrating Bryant's career. But the case has many people stepping gingerly around questions they never thought they would have to answer.
"Yeah, sure he was a great guy then, and he's probably a great guy now. But I knew the guy when he was 17 years old. People change," said Evan Monsky, a former high school teammate. "This is so beyond high school teammates. It's a rape case."
Bryant, now a Los Angeles Lakers (search) superstar, is charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a resort in Colorado. He says his sexual encounter with the woman was consensual.
The Kobe Bryant many in this community knew had the poise of a diplomat by age 17. He eschewed after-school partying for late nights alone in the gym. For an English project his senior year, he wrote a children's book about how his gym clothes came alive at night, and read it to a group of young students.
"Any violence of the type that has now at least been alleged is just so uncharacteristic of him," Magill said. "I'm just sick about this. I'm sick for what his family is going through."
Linda Jackson, director of the Ardmore Avenue Community Center, where Bryant once shot baskets, said she keeps a scrapbook of his triumphs, but has been careful not to hold him up as a role model for the children.
"We don't look at athletes as role models. We look at doctors and lawyers," she said. "The kids here are either too young to understand, or old enough to form opinions on their own."
Philadelphia youth basketball guru Sonny Hill, who knew Bryant from birth, said that his former summer-league standout "has always been one who has carried himself in an exemplary fashion." But Hill has avoided talking about the case.
"I'm too close to the situation. I just want to leave it alone," he said. "Hopefully, from my point of view, this will all be resolved and we will be standing at the end with smiles on our faces."
Whether the case will permanently tarnish Bryant's image in Philadelphia remains to be seen.
The city has long had a love-hate relationship with Bryant. Some people here have not forgiven him for turning pro after high school instead of going to Villanova (search) or Temple (search) or La Salle, where his dad was an assistant coach.
Philadelphians also have not forgotten that he helped lead the Lakers to a championship over the 76ers in 2001. Fans booed Bryant relentlessly when he played in the NBA All-Star game in Philadelphia in 2002.
Even in Lower Merion, there are those who have their doubts about Bryant's squeaky-clean image. Many of them are young women.
But others believe Bryant was falsely accused by a girl possibly out for fame or fortune.
"I think they'll find him innocent," said Colin Peters, 16, who was on the school's freshman basketball team last winter. "I can't see him being taken away from basketball."