They were set to face a high-quality opponent.
Mike Perno and his AAU teammates knew that much, but nothing else regarding the team warming up on the other end of the court one mid-1990s night in Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland.
“When you play in those games, there’s no scouting reports or anything like that,” Perno, now the Saint Rose men’s basketball head coach, said Monday. “They were from Philly. That’s all we knew.”
Quickly, they discovered there wasn’t a scouting report out there capable of helping them defend one of the players on the Sam Rines All-Stars.
Future NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash along with eight other people, was too good.
“There was no social media back then, so nobody really knew who anybody was except by word of mouth,” Perno said. “So I had no idea who Kobe Bryant was at the time. And, then, he came out and he was crossing guys over and taking off from a step inside the foul line.
“It was a competitive game,” Perno continued, “but we definitely lost.”
That was one of two times that Perno, who is from Levittown on Long Island, competed in AAU against Bryant. Both times ended in defeat for Perno’s squad, both times saw Bryant score a few dozen points or so. That first time, Perno’s squad tried one player after another to defend Bryant.
“Nobody could keep him in front of them. It was silly,” Perno said. “His athleticism, we’d never seen anything like it.”
Did Perno take a turn at defending Bryant?
“No,” Perno said. “I knew better.”
He added: “He was seven inches taller than me. I was lucky to touch the backboard and he’d have his head through the rim.”
The next time Perno played in the same game as Bryant, one of his teammates decided he could thwart Bryant with a smart basketball play. So in a game played at the University of Delaware, after seeing Bryant dribble through a couple players, a big man on Perno’s Long Island Lightning squad readied to take a charge on a court surrounded with spectators trying to get a glimpse of Bryant.
“So the kid on my team readied to take a charge — and that was a bad idea,” said Perno, explaining how Bryant essentially jumped over the defender on his way to throwing down a dunk. “The place went absolutely bonkers. It was a roar. It was like 5,000 people were watching.”
Like Perno, Siena men’s basketball head coach Carmen Maciariello is 41 years old. Both local coaches graduated from high school in 1996, as did Bryant. Maciariello remembered Monday crossing paths with Bryant at an AAU tournament held at Northeastern University early in his high school years. Maciariello played in a game for Jim Hart’s Albany City Rocks that day, then stuck around to watch the next game and the “skinny, bald-headed, lanky kid” playing in it.
One play, Maciariello said, Bryant made his way through a pair of defenders with an acrobatic dribbling maneuver, “and he just went coast to coast, and finished above the rim” to end the play.
“Who’s that?” Maciariello remembered needing to find out.
The world found out before too long. Bryant declared for the NBA draft out of high school, then embarked on a professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers in which he won five NBA championships, was an 18-time all-star and scored 33,643 points.
Speaking Monday morning, Perno said he planned to spend the opening of his practice playing Bryant highlights and interview clips for his players. Perno compared his players’ affection for Bryant to his generation’s appreciation for Michael Jordan.
“They grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant,” Perno said.
Perno spent a portion of his Sunday night texting with some of his AAU teammates from decades ago. Bryant was the best player any of them had ever played against, and, tragically, he was dead at 41 years old.
“I probably played 100 AAU games in my lifetime, and you don’t remember all of them,” Perno said. “But you remember the ones where you were on the court with someone special.”