Gregg’s kids

Our editor on the man that made an impact on him and an NBA legend

Coach Gregg Downer and Kobe Bryant
Lower Merion High School boys basketball coach Gregg Downer had a profound impact on the life of Kobe Bryant – and coincidentally, our editor. | Image courtesy: Amy Buckman

It would be easy to write another piece about Kobe Bryant, and frankly, given how fresh this tragedy is to so many of us, it should’ve been a no-brainer. 

But instead of talking about seeing Bryant play in a summer league basketball game at the Ardmore Avenue Community Center, he a 16-year-old phenom on his way to the NBA or me the starry-eyed 12-year-old middle schooler watching in awe, I will talk about someone that greatly impacted his life — and mine. 

Lower Merion High School basketball coach Gregg Downer. 

I knew Downer on a personal level, but it wasn’t by choice. See, in addition to coaching the Aces, he was also a behavioral specialist for the Lower Merion School District and was assigned to me when I used to act a fool at Welsh Valley Middle School. See, before I grew up and realized I was on my way to becoming a statistic, I was the statistic at Welsh Valley: stealing people’s stuff, getting into fights, acting up in class, you name it. 

“I’d like to believe his inner peace and happy time after dealing with me and other kids like me acting like complete jerks under his watch was leaving us for the day and going to Lower Merion to coach a kid who would go on to be one of the greatest players in the NBA.”

I now know why. I lived in the Hunting Park section of North Philly until almost seventh grade, before my mother moved with my sister and me out to Ardmore. I was instantly immersed in a culture that was foreign to me, surrounded by people I didn’t think I could relate to. 

So what do you do when that’s your ethos? 

You act like an asshole apparently — and I was exactly that. 

Enter Gregg Downer, who literally sat in on my classes and coached me through a really tough transition. It was a long time ago and direct conversations have since faded from memory but I do remember Downer showing me two sides: the path I could’ve gone down and the path that I did and I’d like to think that in some way he was instrumental for getting me back on the one that was straight and narrow. 

I’d also like to believe his inner peace and happy time after dealing with me and other kids like me acting like complete jerks under his watch was leaving us for the day and going to Lower Merion to coach a kid who would go on to be one of the greatest players in the NBA. 

So right after the news, the first person I thought about locally was Coach Downer. Knowing him and how much he cared for kids who didn’t want him around, I could only imagine what was going through his mind when it came to a kid who actually valued every word to come out of his mouth. 

His heartbreak was clear as Downer didn’t release a public statement until late Monday night via Lower Merion PR and then subsequently held a press conference where he made a statement at the school the next day, answering few questions and affirming he would not take interviews later that night when LM hosted Upper Darby inside the gym named after Kobe. 

They say we are all connected to each other somehow and I know my connection — besides living in close proximity to where the NBA legend went to school — was through the coach that aided in his prowess. People only know Downer as a high school coach, but I know him as a person who truly cared for the wellbeing of all students. 

It’s because of Downer I’m not embarrassed to talk about my past shortcomings. In fact, I’ve embraced that due to circumstances both of my own doing and some not, like most people I had to scratch and claw to get back to the straight and narrow. But it’s also important to recognize the people who helped steer you along the way. 

Gregg Downer was one of those people. 

So, Coach Downer, if you see this and you thought Kerith Gabriel was a lost cause — as I’m sure at the time it certainly appeared that way — know that I was able to right the ship as I’m sure a lot of kids under your watch can also say. I’m sorry for your loss but know that beyond basketball you still have a lot of wins. 

I’m one of them. 

  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.