Bailey Harris remembers 1995 Beach Ball Classic matchup against Kobe Bryant.
Before becoming a 5-time NBA champion, League MVP and future Basketball Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant was the consensus top player in high school.
Retired Lexington High School boys' basketball coach Bailey Harris got a firsthand look at the then-senior out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia 25 years ago. The Wildcats and Aces met in December 1995 at the Beachball Classic in Myrtle Beach. Both teams were 1-1 at the Classic entering their final contest.
The Wildcats were among 19 teams who participated in the 15th annual edition of the event. The nationally-renowned high school holiday basketball tournament, won that year by University Heights out of Kentucky, brought to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center future NBA players guard Mike Bibby out of Shadow Mountain High School in Arizona and center Jermaine O’Neal out of Eau Claire High School. It was Bryant who drew the most attention from the 6,000-plus daily spectators at the Convention Center and was clearly the Aces' main weapon.
"You knew he was going to be special," Harris said. "You can argue about him being the best or 1 of the 2-3 best ever. But he was definitely not like anything else you've seen."
Bryant faced a Lexington team that was 9-3 at the time, 2 losses coming at the hands of Irmo. The Wildcats were led by Tyson Bouknight, Derrick Liferidge, Jamar Davis and future Northside Christian Academy boys basketball coach Jason Harmon.
In 2017, Harmon reflected on that game when his Crusaders faced another NBA prospect in Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson.
“When we played Kobe, he was the No. 1 player in the country. Kobe was a great shooter, especially,” said Harmon following the 1st round SCISA Class 2A playoff game.
Despite picking up 3 early fouls a night after fouling out the previous game in an overtime loss to Jenks High School, did not relent in his aggressiveness, according to Harris. Bryant's renowned "Mamba Mentality" was on full display. He finished with 43 points to match his total in Lower Merion's Classic opener.
"We tried everything in the world," Harris remembered. "We doubled him. We tried to trap him. We tried just to get the ball out of his hands. We were a pretty good team, but we just wasn't his match."
Despite a 2nd half comeback, sparked by Harmon scoring 16 of 20 of his points, the Wildcats fell 76-70.
Bryant totalled 117 points in 3 games, 1 point behind Bibby who had 118 at the same Classic. He was named the Classic's Most Outstanding Player. He also finished in a tie with Lester Earl, who attended Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge, La. and enrolled at Kansas, in the Slam Dunk contest.
Following the Beach Ball Classic, neither Lower Merion nor Lexington lost again. Bryant's Aces went on to win 27 straight games enrought to winning the Pennslyvania state title.
"Post-Beach Ball" Legacy
The Wildcats also embarked on a long winning streak after the Classic. They finished the 1995-96 season with 19 straight wins capped by a Class 4A title game victory over Irmo.
Lexington's streak also ended at 28 straight, a school record snapped by last year's team which reached the Class 5A Lower State final.
Nearly 11 years after the Classic meeting, Lexington and Bryant closed paths again. This time, the Wildcats were in Charlotte, NC to face Ridge View in a pregame prior to the matchup between the then-Bobcats and visiting Lakers.
Once again, Bryant put on a scoring show. He finished with 58 points on 22-45 shots for a Hornets' opponent record for shots taken. The Lakers fell in triple overtime 133-124.
Harris remembered Bryant as the 2nd best high school player he ever coached against behind Mauldin's Kevin Garnett. Like many basketball fans, it's still hard to believe his untimely passsing.
"This last era, it was 20-something years growing up with Kobe being if not the best at least in the conversation for being the best all-time," Harris said. "It's still kind of hard to accept."