Basketball player

Ex-Stroudsburg basketball player recalls ‘the ferocity in his eyes’

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Pocono Record in 2020.

Kobe Bryant was a dominant force long before he embarked on a remarkable 20-year NBA career.

Ken Lacey, now a Yonkers police lieutenant, played him one memorable night in high school.

It was 1996. Lacey was a kingpin in the massive Mounted Police at Stroudsburg High School. This 26-4 team faced Bryant’s Lower Merion High School team from suburban Philadelphia in a state playoff quarterfinal at Martz Hall in Pottsville.

Lacey, a 6-foot-9 center whose presence dominated the ground, recalled how his team relished the opportunity to play such fierce competition.

Kobe Bryant (33) of Lower Merion High School, Pennsylvania is guarded by Emmet Donnelly of Stroudsburg High School during a Class 4A PIAA quarterfinal game at Martz Hall in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1996. Bryant died on Sunday January 26, 2020, to a helicopter crash in California at age 41.

“There was just excitement,” recalls Lacey. “We just had a team full of guys who liked to play basketball. And the idea that we could play against the best, that made all the guys on this team, myself included, extremely excited to get on the court and face him.

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Realizing that Bryant would be the RCMP’s biggest obstacle, Stroudsburg coach Shawn Thornton’s ultimate goal was to keep him from scoring. To the right?

Wrong.

“We watched a lot of movies and saw how different teams approached him and kind of resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to go the extra mile to stop him,” Thornton said the day after the match. Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. in California. “He was averaging 36 points per game, and if he got that, well, our job was to stop everybody.”

Then-coach Shawn Thornton, center, speaks to his Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, high school <a class=basketball team during a timeout during their game against Lower Merion and Kobe Bryant in the quarterfinals of the of 1996.” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Hh.FrxZGPsxpE1YC66mi3w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTg5Mw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/slIEMtQdCnQHdxfOkdp_KA–~B/aD01MDg7dz00MDE7YXBwaWQ9eXRhY2h5b24-/https://media.zenfs.com/en/lohud-the-journal-news/9b7799576358a04cadbbd4c22a228455″/>

Then-coach Shawn Thornton, center, speaks to his Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, high school basketball team during a timeout during their game against Lower Merion and Kobe Bryant in the quarterfinals of the of 1996.

Fighting Kobe and the flu

The game against Lower Merion was different — partly because of Bryant, partly because Lacey was battling the flu.

The day before the game, Lacey woke up sweating and fell ill. Her parents called the athletic trainer from Stroudsburg, who recommended drinking Gatorade and eating bananas. Lacey said he was never able to get back to sleep, just trying to hydrate and keep food down.

“I felt awful, not just being sick,” Lacey said. “I felt terrible because I knew I wasn’t going to be at my best playing against the best.”

Nonetheless, Lacey resisted and was able to play in spurts at times. Thornton knew, however, that Lacey was a “shadow of himself” that day.

As for the defense of Bryant, this task was entrusted to Emmet Donnelly, an Irish foreign student.

“This guy was rambling. Hard,” Thornton said of Donnelly. “A tough kid who could just take on a challenge. And so we put Emmet Donnelly on him and gave up seven inches, but he was tough as nails with him.

Kobe Bryant and Yonkers Lt. Ken Lacey.

Kobe Bryant and Yonkers Lt. Ken Lacey.

“Most competitive look”

As the game wore on, Bryant laid it all out and scored exactly his average, 36 points, en route to a 71-54 win for Lower Merion. Two games later, Bryant ended his high school career with a state title before being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets as the 13th overall pick in the NBA draft. He was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He didn’t disappoint anyone who came to see him play,” Thornton said. “True to his career, he did not take a game.”

Lacey, who played three years at Rider University before a nine-year pro career in Europe, recalls facing Bryant, preparing for the first tip of the game and immediately knowing what Bryant was up to. able.

“It was so easy to predict he was going to be awesome,” Lacey said. “Because at 17, to have that fierceness in my eyes, I had never seen such a look. And I was able to play three years at university and nine years in Europe, and I didn’t never seen again. And it was from a 17-year-old kid. And he gave me the fiercest, most competitive look and look I’ve ever seen in quite a long basketball career.

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Lacey recalled that the team thought they might expose a weakness in Bryant’s game – his outside shooting. It didn’t last long.

“He started the game with 3 straight points and we were down 6-0,” Lacey said. “We knew he was going to be faster than everyone on the court. We knew he could jump higher than everyone on the court. There was no weakness.”

Bryant’s superiority was evident that night.

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“It motivated me”

But Lacey’s illness still leaves a huge wait for Thornton and Lacey.

“You get used to relying on certain things,” Thornton said. “Ken was a guy who on any night could – he averaged 23 points per game and over 15 rebounds. Trying to figure out what you’re going to do without it? Here’s a guy trying to play (due to the flu). »

“It’s unfortunately something that we all had to live with as a team, and obviously I had to live with it, not knowing what to do, never knowing the answer to it,” Lacey said.

Lacey said he only became the player he became later in development, but once he did he was exceptional. Meeting Bryant, however, completely changed his mindset.

“For two years, I never felt like I had a real competition on the court like that day,” Lacey said. “And just being outclassed in every way in every facet of the game opened my eyes and made me hungrier. A guy I had just played against was going to get drafted into the NBA, and I was going to college.

“So I remembered those feelings after the game as I prepared to go to college and play college. I used that as motivation. How special a player he was, that made me motivated because I never wanted to feel like anyone was much better than me.

From the Lakers to NBA 2K video games, Bryant has become not just a household name but a legend, an icon.

This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Former Stroudsburg player recalls facing Kobe Bryant