That was Bryant, now dead at 41 years old, one of nine victims of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday morning. This memorial was at the entrance to Bryant Gymnasium, the athletic center he funded that was dedicated in 2010, making it so generations would walk beneath his name, by a glass case of his accomplishments, by his photo — his body mid-flight, his eyes tilted skyward — on their way to play basketball.
It was his gift to Lower Merion once he became a global superstar. And Monday, a day after his death, this community in a wooded suburb just northwest of Philadelphia, and people from around the East Coast, came to process sudden loss. Some of them lost an idol. Others lost a friend. But all of them stood in a knee-shaking cold, staring at the basketballs, the flowers, the sneakers, the jerseys, the note that remembered a son, father and legend, and mourned.
“This is surreal,” said Lamar Armstrong Jr., a Los Angeles native who drove two hours to rest a basketball and an American flag on the ground. “Kobe was everything to me growing up, and I just had to be here to pay respect.”
Armstrong, 31, is in the military and based in Houston. But he is in Pennsylvania for school, in the small town of Fort Indiantown Gap northeast of Harrisburg, and had Monday off. The ball he left was engraved with Bryant’s initials, as well as “GB” for Gianna Bryant, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter who also died in the crash. The flag, folded into a perfect triangle, was his personal one, the one he kept in the back window of his car, and now will stay behind at Lower Merion.
He teared up about the decision to leave it there, in a growing pile of merchandise, next to two candles that flickered out, on top of a half-dozen roses. Armstrong stopped mid-sentence, stared into the windows of the gymnasium and saw a row of Lower Merion students peering down at the gathering. That made him tear up, too.
“It’s the highest honor I could give him,” Armstrong said of the flag. “I mean, look at these kids, man, who go to Kobe Bryant’s school, who know they could be something because of him. That means a lot.”
The school day began with a 33-second moment of silence. Students encouraged each other to wear black, a nod to the “Black Mamba,” one of Bryant’s nicknames. He scored 2,883 points in four seasons at Lower Merion. As a senior in 1996, he led the Aces to their first state title in 53 years. He soon went straight to the NBA, as the 13th pick in the draft that year, putting Lower Merion in the national spotlight.
Bryant spent his childhood in Italy and grew to fame playing for the Lakers in Los Angeles, but it was at Lower Merion that he got his start. Bridget McCann, a junior on the girls’ basketball team, described the hallways as quiet and somber Monday. McCann and seven others spoke with a room full of reporters in the afternoon, a group that included two current students and five alumni.
“He was just a fun-loving guy,” said Guy Stewart, Class of 1995, who played three seasons with Bryant and considered him a close friend. “It was bigger than basketball. It was deeper than basketball.”
Stewart wiped his face, leaving his cheeks damp, and sniffed back another rush of tears. There were a lot of those at Lower Merion on Monday. There were Armstrong’s when he looked at his flag for the last time. And there were Jack Wang’s, after the Beijing native set down three letters and looked up at the growing, gray clouds.
Wang moved from China to West Chester, Pa., three years ago and has been a fan of Bryant’s for 20 years. One of the letters was his message to Bryant, whom Wang described as a “very big deal in my country, the biggest of all NBA players.” Wang wrote the other two on behalf of his friends, who are still in Beijing, and straightened them out, into a neat row, before making the 45-minute trip home.
“I will never forget the noise when they introduced Kobe at the  Olympics in Beijing,” Wang said. “I was there, in the arena, and it was very loud. He meant so much to us.”
That sentiment — that Bryant meant so much to us — was written all over the 33 basketballs. One had the words “GREAT GRATITUDE” stripped across it. Another read “MAMBA 4EVER.” A third, a brown Spalding, worn as if it had been used outside, kept it simple with “RIP Kobe.” And every once in a while, when wind whipped the air, the cellophane wrap rustled against the neighboring flowers.
It sounded a bit like a cheering crowd.