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Kobe Bryant’s stolen signed high school uniform has been returned — from China

Kobe Bryant's replica high school jersey was returned after being stolen two years ago. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Lower Merion High, Kobe Bryant’s alma mater in Ardmore, Pa., has a surveillance camera trained on the “Kobe shrine,” a collection of Bryant memorabilia dating from the Aces’ state championship run in 1996.

The shrine, a glass case, contained game programs from the playoffs, autographed Bryant shoes, the state championship trophy and the net from the game. But the pièce de résistance sat on the top shelf: a replica of the white and maroon jersey worn during those years with Bryant’s signature across the chest.

And there it all sat in plain view of the cameras on a sleepy Sunday in February 2017, when two masked men entered the frame, each holding crowbars, with their shirt collars pulled over their faces. They pried the glass free from the lock and ransacked the case’s contents, emptying it all into a black garbage bag. Then they walked out of the camera’s view, leaving the Lower Merion Police Department without much in the way of clues to recover the items.

Now the replica jersey, at least, is nearly back home after a two-year journey that took it halfway around the world.

Liu Zhe, a 28-year-old Bryant devotee in Harbin, China, returned it to Lower Merion this week after he noticed the item in his private collection — hanging alongside Bryant jerseys from the Lakers (Nos. 8 and 24) and Team USA — looked similar to the jersey he knew had been stolen from the high school.

He told ESPN, which reported the story Wednesday, that he purchased the uniform from a dealer who saw his collection proudly displayed on Instagram. He paid $2,000 for the jersey, which is not worth that much because Bryant never actually wore it. Liu did not ask police, the high school or Bryant for any compensation for returning the item, just that Bryant be notified.

He said he took inspiration from a signed photograph he had of Bryant, on which the future Hall of Famer wrote, “Dream big! Live epic! Mamba mentality.”

“What I did was my ‘Mamba mentality,’ ” Liu told ESPN.

Bryant has maintained close ties to his high school. He donated funds to support the school’s athletic department, and the administration named the school’s gymnasium in his honor in 2010. During Bryant’s final NBA season, the 76ers brought his high school coach to midcourt to present him with a No. 24 Lower Merion jersey.

And when items from the shrine went missing, it shocked all of “Aces Nation,” as fans call themselves. The thieves busted a door to the school open, threw the memorabilia into a bag and didn’t bother to try to cover their tracks, leaving the glass case splayed open with a single game program left inside.

“It’s craziness to think that this would happen. No one was expecting it. I thought it was a joke at first because it was so extreme,” one student told local ABC affiliate WPVI at the time.

“I have to question what their intention was in stealing that. Was it one of our rivals? Why would they do something like that to our school?” asked another student.

Even after the jersey has been returned, police have yet to make an arrest in the case, which is ongoing. Liu told ESPN he is working with Lower Merion police to identify the person who sold him the jersey.

The basketball team turned the uniform over to law enforcement so it can be used as part of the investigation, school district spokeswoman Amy Buckman said in an interview.

“The hope is that we’ll get it back, we’ll reframe it and put it back, hopefully with a better lock,” she said.

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