Kobe Bryant‘s high school jersey was back home for a ceremony honoring the late NBA legend, three years after it was stolen.
Bryant’s retired no. 33 jersey from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia was stolen in 2017 from the campus and eventually purchased by a collector in China, NBC Philadelphia reported. Back in March 2019, the collector —who was suspicious the jersey had been stolen — contacted the school and sent it back to Pennsylvania.
On Saturday, the coveted jersey was unveiled during a ceremony at Bryant Gymnasium, named after the late athlete who died in a Calabasas helicopter crash on Jan. 26. Bryant’s cousin John Cox, his old high school coach, and a former teammate were among those in attendance.
“That was kind of an iconic moment when the spotlight went on that jersey. It was just tremendous,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer told NBC Philadelphia. “It was major irony, almost, how we’ve been waiting for that jersey for a long time. For a long time we didn’t know where it was. To have it back, it’s a fitting ending to a tough week.”
In October 2018, Bryant superfan Liu Zhe jumped at the opportunity when he was approached by an online seller who offered him a chance at a rare autographed edition of the NBA legend’s high school jersey. He purchased the jersey from the seller for about $2,000, according to ESPN, and added it to his extensive collection of Bryant memorabilia.
But not long after receiving the package, Liu noticed something wasn’t right — the jersey seemed to match the picture of one that had been stolen from a display case that also featured Bryant’s Parade All-American plaque and five pairs of his signature Nike sneakers, he told the outlet.
He eventually sent the jersey back to the school, who handed it to the Lower Merion Police Department, before it was then taken to a memorabilia dealer in New Jersey, who ultimately confirmed it was indeed the missing one, according to ESPN.
During Lower Merion’s first home game after the NBA legend’s death, principal Sean Hughes shared a sweet speech in honor of Bryant to the 1,600 people gathered.
“Because of Kobe, Lower Merion High School is known all over the globe,” he said, per NBC Philadelphia. “Despite his international fame, Kobe kept very close to our hearts. He returned here to meet with beloved teachers, and of course, coach Downer. He helped make this gym the wonderful facility it is. He was a strong supporter, not only of our basketball teams, but all of Aces Nation.”
Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among the nine victims killed in the Calabasas helicopter crash. They are survived by Bryant’s wife Vanessa and their three daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
Last Friday night, the Los Angeles Lakers paid an emotional tribute to Bryant during their first game at the Staples Center since the fatal helicopter crash.
The Staples Center was transformed into a sea of gold as each seat in the stadium was covered with either Bryant’s No. 8 or No. 24 jersey, which the thousands of fans wore to honor the fallen NBA star.
After Usher took center court to sing “Amazing Grace,” the crowd broke into chants of “Kobe” and then “Gigi.” They then stood for a 24.2-second moment of silence for all nine victims in the helicopter: John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Payton and Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan in addition to Gianna and Bryant.
Last week, Vanessa, 37, announced that the Mamba Sports Foundation has set up a charity for the seven other victims of the helicopter crash. The NBA has announced that they would be making a $100,000 donation to the foundation in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association.