ARDMORE, PA. – Kobe Bryant's high school jersey has recently spent more time in China than on the wall of the gym named in honor of the school's career leader.
Bryant's retired Jersey No. 33 was stolen from the Lower Merion High School campus in 2017 and eventually bought by a collector in China. Suspected of having the jersey stolen, the Kobe collector contacted the school and helped bring the souvenir back to the suburbs of Philadelphia, a process that was ongoing before Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday.
The uniform was where it belonged last Saturday – revealed by Bryant's cousin, his old high school coach, and a former teammate at Bryant High School.
"Good timing," said Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer. “It was an iconic moment when the shirt was in the spotlight. It was just amazing. It was almost ironic how long we waited for this jersey. We didn't know where it was for a long time. To have it back, it's a fitting end to a tough week. "
No place outside of Los Angeles was as connected to Bryant as Lower Merion. At a homage on Friday night in LA, the entire Lakers lineup was introduced in the same way: "From Lower Merion High School, No. 8, Kobe Bryant." Golfer Justin Thomas wore a Bryant No. at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. 33 LM jersey. The Sixers had the 33 logo on their pitch at their first home game this week since Bryant's death.
While the NBA teams spent the following days watching Bryant, Lower Merion finally played his first home game and celebrated the biggest star ever played for the Aces. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other casualties were reminded of the pregame ceremony.
"Because of Kobe, Lower Merion High School is known around the world," principal Sean Hughes told the crowd. “Despite his international fame, Kobe has remained very dear to our hearts. He came back here to meet his lover [English 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 of all Aces Nation. "
The gym was full of at least 1,600 people, and the students – some asked for $ 40 for the $ 3 ticket this week at school – were wearing black The Heartbeat of Aces Nation t-shirts and one 33 in an ace. The son of Sixers coach Brett Brown plays on the team, far from the A-listeners who had taken Staples Center the night before in a thrilling ceremony. In Lower Merion, a former student sang the national anthem. A teacher revealed a portrait she had painted of Bryant. The school administrators gave speeches.
As soon as the ball toppled, it went as usual without the NBA teams welcoming Bryant's two pro-uniform numbers after the 24-second shot and 8-second breaches of the courtyard. Lower Merion was silent for 33 seconds and former teammates (and Bryant's cousin John Cox) gathered in a sad circle in the courtyard.
In some ways, the aces' 42:37 win over Souderton seemed as normal as Bryant's presence in the gym. It's just a name between Carly Brown and Mike Venafra on a banner listing the 1,000-point scorers of Aces's career. On the wall was a photo of Bryant, who won the AAAA state championship title in class in 1996 and mingled with dozens of other great players and teams in program history.
There was even some recklessness during the high points of his video career when Bryant was reminded of his high school days and said, “The first year I got there, we were 4 and 40 or so. We were terrible. "
Cirilo Perez drove nearly 2½ hours from Heightsville, Maryland to pay his respects to Bryant at the gym memorial. He didn't have a ticket to the game, he just wanted to be part of the day dedicated to his favorite player. Perez wore a Bryant jersey and left his Lakers hat on the scene, loaded with basketballs, cards, and signs left by Bryant fans nearby and far.
"He did a job and brought with him this work philosophy that many people are connected to, not just here, but around the world," said Perez. "He found a way to connect."
Carter Knight, assistant coach at Souderton, collected the Indians for a team photo on site.
"It's real now," said Knight. "We have been talking about the" Mamba mentality "since the beginning of the season. So it is crazy that we are here today. We have been working all season on this mental toughness and what Kobe has brought and what he is for stands. "
His former advisor, Frank Hartwell, attended the game and recalled that Bryant's Toyota Land Cruiser was often parked in the teacher's post well before school started.
"His smile was the best I remember," said Hartwell. "He was just an inspiration for so many, it wasn't just about himself. He was here every day in front of the school and worked on his skills. He wasn't just here when he was shooting, he was working on his movements."
Hartwell said Bryant even spoke to him when he saw his biggest move – the jump to the NBA straight from Lower Merion.
"I gave him the pros and cons, but I told him," It's up to you. "I think he made the right decision," said Hartwell.
Bryant made the right call and started with a Mamba mentality that had settled in Lower Merion long before it became a marketing buzzword.
"It was a hunt for excellence like I have never seen before," said Downer.