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'It's a great memory to treasure' - The Dubliner who once went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant

Emmet Donnelly guarded the NBA legend during a high school game.

“THE MAN ON the spot today will be Emmet Donnelly. Emmet gets the assignment on Kobe Byrant, it’s going to be a tough assignment for Donnelly.”

Donnelly Kobe Bryant came up against Dubliner Emmet Donnelly in a high school game in 1996. Source: Emmet Donnelly

Match commentators setting the scene ahead of the 1996 Pennsylvania state clash between Lower Merion High School and Stroudsburg High School.

It was an eastern semi-final within the State that featured an intriguing match-up. Bryant, the reigning High School National Player of the Year on the cusp of breaking into the NBA, represented the Lower Merion outfit of Philadelphia.

The Stroudsburg player who was tasked with guarding this 6ft 6′ unit was a plucky youngster from Glasnevin.

Emmet Donnelly had enrolled in Stroudsburg the previous year with a view to exploring his basketball potential among the most exciting young talents in the sport. And in Bryant, he was muscling with the best.

News of Bryant’s sudden and tragic passing as a result of a helicopter crash filtered through as Donnelly was going to bed last night.

More than two decades have passed since their 1996 encounter, but an influx of messages instantly brought Donnelly back to that moment in time when he squared up to the ‘Black Mamba’.

“My high school basketball coach from the States was one of the first to get in touch with me,” Donnelly tells The42.

“It’s funny looking on more than 20 years but it’s a really nice memory to have. 

He was such a giant of the game and had such an impact on so many players. We’re the same age and I have two daughters myself so on a human level, it’s very tragic to hear the news.

“We were in completely different worlds but I suppose having our worlds collide for a moment in time was special, and now that he has been one of the all-time greats, it’s really nice to have.”

Donnelly 1 Donnelly was one of Stroudsburg's best defensive players. Source: Emmet Donnelly.

Donnelly, the third of four sons, hails from a basketball family. He knew he needed to venture over to America if he wanted to further his development as a player and two of his siblings had already attended High School over there as part of that maturing process.

He was drawn to Stroudsburg on account of his brother David who previously went there, and decided to follow in his footsteps. It proved to be a perfect fit, as Donnelly became one of their top defensive players.

His arrival also coincided with a golden era for basketball in the school. The ’95-’96 season was Stroudsburg’s most successful campaign in their history, and it culminated in a meeting with Kobe’s Lower Merion at state championship level.

Donnelly’s importance to the team is clearly reflected in him being selected to guard Kobe, but there was one problem — Bryant had a five-inch height advantage on the Irishman.

“He was 6 ft 6′ and I was 6 ft 1′ so I was giving up five inches straight away,” Donnelly recalls.

“The game plan was for me to get as close as possible and keep him at bay. He was a phenomenal shooter but at the time, his strongest game was going past people and getting to the basket.

“The gameplan was to limit the damage really and make him shoot from the outside as much as we could.

And of course, the first play of the game, he gets the ball and scores a three-pointer right in my face.”

****

There’s a lot of fight in Emmet Donnelly, he’s battling the big guys underneath

Bryant’s class was obvious, and his high school years proved to the benchmark of his future successes in basketball.

He was drafted straight into the NBA that year by the Charlotte Hornets, before going on to enjoy a decorated 20-year career with the LA Lakers. Five NBA titles and 18 All-Star awards are just a flavour of his achievements, while that ‘Black Mamba’ nickname sympolished his legendary fierceness as a player.

Donnelly doesn’t believe he quite measured up to Bryant’s level that day when they battled as a high school players, but he certainly brought a fight to the court.

He even drew some praise from the TV commentators, who say the Dubliner was averaging eight points per game during that season.

“It was probably one of my best games all year,” says Donnelly.

“I played reasonably well and had a few nice scores.

“I don’t know if I gave as good as I got but I certainly did as well as I could and limited him in some sense. But that was the extent of it, I don’t know if we were quite evenly matched.

“But it was a good experience.”

Donnelly recounts that there was plenty of talk about Kobe’s potential at that time. He estimates that there were around 4,000 people at that game between Lower Merion and Stroudsburg, with fans pouring onto the court in a scramble for Byrant’s autograph after the game.

Nobody could have envisaged the scale of what was to come in Bryant’s basketball career, but Donnelly knew he had just come across a special talent, who had grace and skill in equal amounts.

“There was certainly a sense that this guy could go on to be something special,” he says of his impression of a young Kobe.

“His sheer athleticism was phenomenal. Also, his desire to get on the end of everything. He was involved in every play in the game and had a really good work ethic. It sounds a bit cliched but even at that time, for a guy with such a national profile, he seemed quite honest and genuine as a competitor.

There were a few plays where he was confident and there was a bit of trash talk here and there but it wasn’t in a mean sense. He was complimentary at different times during the game to us as well so he was certainly respectful as a competitor.”

Stroudsburg lost to Lower Merion that day and the sporting lives of Donnelly and Bryant diverged down different paths in the years after. Bryant went on to illuminate the NBA stage, but Donnelly found peace and satisfaction elsewhere in basketball.

After completing his high school studies, Donnelly went on to King’s College in Pennsylvania where he played Division 3 basketball. He returned to Ireland in 2002 and enjoyed several years of playing with the St Vincent’s/DCU Saints club. 

Ireland’s Super Cup competition brought plenty of fulfillment for him.

emmet-donnelly-and-shane-coughlan Emmet Donelly had plenty of fulfilling days playing basketball in Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Having played for Ireland at junior level, he struggled to break into the senior ranks initially. He eventually spent three years on the Ireland and captained them along the way, but only after gritting it out to earn a call-up by attending open trials.

“There must have been about 60 players going for it and only one or two of us made it in the end to join up the team,” Donnelly remembers.

“And then I just worked as hard as I could and once I was on the team, not to be on the end of the bench, and just to contribute as much as I could. So I had three really good years with the team.

“There must have been about 60 players going for it and only one or two of us made it in the end to join up the team.

“And then I just worked as hard as I could and once I was on the team, not to be on the end of the bench, and just to contribute as much as I could. So I had three really good years with the team.

For a few weeks every year, I was as close as I got to being a full-time professional basketball player.”

He’ll sit on his couch 10 years from now in Ireland or wherever he may be and watch Kobe lighting it up in the NBA, and say ‘hey, I guarded him.

Bryant experienced the professional platform for 20 years in the NBA, but Donnelly carved out his own version of that back home in Ireland. And Kobe wasn’t the only sporting icon he shared a court with.

He played alongside Dublin GAA legend, and long-time friend, Jason Sherlock with the St Vincent’s/DCU Saints club.

The pair still lace up the runners for the annual Over 40 Masters tournament. Rathcoole is home for Donnelly these days, and he works as a software development manager.

Basketball will always be important to him, and people still ask him about his famous battle with Bryant all those years ago. Those conversations are all the poignant today following the passing of the LA Lakers legend.

One moment in time when their worlds collided is something he’ll always remember.

“Some people would argue he’s the greatest player who ever lived.

“It was one point in time but even today, with all the news, it’s a point of interest and it always intrigues people.

“It’s a fun story to have and it’s a great memory to treasure.” 

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