Lower Merion HS teammate learned of Kobe Bryant’s competitiveness the hard way

Dan Pangrazio lay on the court, his elbow bleeding badly enough that three stitches were needed to close the gash.

He had been deposited there by a teammate as they battled for the ball on the final go-around of a rebounding drill/game his coach used to instill toughness. The sides were tied and he was going to hand his ballyhooed teammate his first loss in the drill in, well, forever.

“The ball ricocheted underneath the basket. I grabbed it and held it in my hands. I definitely had possession for a second or a second a half. I had two feet planted and then boom, he hits me from behind and just grabs it from me,” Pangrazio told The Post in a telephone interview.

“I’m lying on the ground and I see I’m bleeding and I see him walking away with the ball under his arm, saying, ‘We win.’ ”

That teammate was Kobe Bryant, the future NBA legend who died Sunday in a helicopter crash at the age of 41.

“I wasn’t angry. You just loved the competitiveness,” Pangrazio said. “There’s just something you had to respect about how competitive he was and how much he wanted to win. You were just in awe of the guy’s drive. And we were all just trying to live up to that.”

Pangrazio grew up in Fairfield County in Connecticut but his family moved to the Philadelphia area before his freshman year of high school and he found himself teammates with Bryant, who was two years ahead of him at Lower Merion High School and already a star.

Dan Pangrazio, a teammate of Kobe Bryant's at Lower Merion (Pa.) High School
Dan Pangrazio, a teammate of Kobe Bryant’s at Lower Merion (Pa.) High SchoolDan Pangrazio

In two years starting alongside Bryant as Lower Merion’s shooting guard, he got an early firsthand look at what became Bryant’s legendary drive and competitiveness.

“We were always just trying to reach to the highest level because he demanded that of you,” said Pangrazio, now the assistant superintendent of business services for the Ceres (Calif.) Unified School District. “He set such a high bar for that work ethic and competitiveness. We had to prove we should be on the court. He made us all better.”

Pangrazio, 40, was pretty good when he showed up as a freshman and coach Gregg Downer inserted him as a starter from the jump.

“My role was basically playing defense and finding ways to get [Bryant] the ball,” Pangrazio, who played college ball at St. Mary’s in California, said. “And of course he just drew so much attention, when he did pass me the ball, most of the time I’m wide open and I’m thinking if he’s going to throw the ball out to me, I better make this shot at a high clip.”

Though Bryant dominated the ball and his reputation in the NBA was shoot first, pass much later, Pangrazio said there were times in high school Bryant was a willing a passer and would end up with a dozen assists or more because “there were always three guys on him.”

Dan Pangrazio stands behind the left shoulder of Kobe Bryant (center, second row) in a team photo from the 1996 Lower Merion HS yearbook.
Dan Pangrazio stands behind the left shoulder of Kobe Bryant (center, second row) in a team photo from the 1996 Lower Merion HS yearbook.Don Murray

One of those games — at least late in the game — came during the state quarterfinals of Bryant’s senior season against Norristown.

“I hadn’t played much of a role on the offensive end and [Norristown] went into a zone and I was open and he made the pass to me four times in the last five or six possessions and I made four straight 3’s,” Pangrazio said. “At one of the critical moments of our state-title run, he believed in me. That came from believing in making the right play and believing in me.

“I remember getting a big hug from him and a smack on the back from him after the game. And if you got that from him, that meant something.”

Bryant ultimately led Lower Merion to that 1996 Pennsylvania state title, ending the Aces’ 53-year title drought. The next year, Pangrazio was back in Connecticut and leading Fairfield Prep to its first state title in 28 years.

Though Pangrazio didn’t stay in touch with Bryant — “I was gone and he was off to the world,” he said — he said he often flashes back to his two years sharing a court with him.

“It was just being around greatness and seeing what it takes,” he said.

He uses those memories, mostly drawn from practices, about drive and work ethic in life — at work, with his family.

He did, though, flash back to an in-game memory last week.

“The night before [Bryant was killed] LeBron passed him [for third on the all-time scoring list], I was thinking about his place in history,” Pangrazio said.

“And it took me back to a normal league game, nothing special. And they stop the game and the P.A. announcer said he just passed Wilt Chamberlain for the most points in Philadelphia high school history. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he just passed Wilt Chamberlain.’ We knew how great he is, but that’s when I started thinking he could be one of the best in the history of the game and that’s what he ended up being.”

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