In 2017, Kobe Bryant’s Lower Merion jersey was stolen from a display case at the Los Angeles Lakers icon’s high school. In 2019, the jersey found its way back to the school, all thanks to a Chinese superfan who bought it from an online seller.
Around October 2018, Harbin, China native Liu Zhe was browsing online for some Kobe Bryant merchandise and came across a Lower Meron jersey of his idol. He purchased it for $2,000, not knowing the history behind his latest Kobe merchandise.
Later on, Liu found out that the jersey in his hands was the same one that was stolen from Kobe’s high school in 2017. Through Instagram, he contacted Bryant’s representatives, noting that he’s willing to mail the jersey back to Ardmore, Pennsylvania. He didn’t name a price. He just wanted the chance to tell Kobe the story of how the jersey ended up with him.
Liu returned the jersey successfully. In 2019, he finally got the chance to tell his story to Kobe face-to-face. Kobe was in Shenzen, China in March 2019 for an event for his children's book, "The Wizenard Series: Training Camp."
"I asked Kobe, 'Do you remember me?'" Liu told ESPN. "He told me, 'Yes, thank you for returning the jersey. You did a great thing.'"
Apart from posing for photos, the two exchanged gifts. Liu gave a letter to Kobe, detailing how the Lakers legend meant so much to his life. Meanwhile, Kobe signed a poster-size photo of him and Liu. Kobe also wrote, “Do epic things!”
In February 2020, a few days after Bryant perished in a helicopter crash, Lower Merion unveiled the stolen jersey in a ceremony. Gregg Downer, Bryant’s high school coach, described how bittersweet the ceremony was.
“Good timing,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said. “That was kind of an iconic moment when the spotlight went on that jersey. It was just tremendous. 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.”
Downer was one of the people who saw Kobe develop from a searing talent into a basketball legend. He was there when Kobe worked on his game even up into the wee hours of the night.
“It was a chase of excellence like I’ve never seen,” Downer said.