The NBA star inspired a generation of Chinese basketball fans. His efforts to promote the sport in the country are part of his enduring legacy.
“I love China” was among the few Chinese phrases Kobe Bryant uttered at a Nike basketball camp in Shanghai in the summer of 2009.
A decade later, after his untimely death at 41, we’re beginning to see how much China loved him back.
Bryant was the inspiration of a global generation of basketball fans, the man who, more than any other, would be the face of the NBA, nowhere more so than in China.
Yao Ming might be the country’s most famous NBA export, but it was Bryant who would end up selling more jerseys than China’s homegrown star.
He was Nike’s most recognizable face at a time when they were pushing into the market. He appeared in an incongruous Smart car advertisement and peddled Sprite with Jay Chou.
But there was more to it than the money. Bryant first visited China years before Yao went to the NBA, and he continued to visit afterward.
These visits endeared him to China’s fans, as did his early adoption of Chinese social media.
(Read more: How the NBA became China’s favorite sports league)
He launched a Chinese website in 2009, and showed he was game for a laugh when he interacted directly with his fans, often in Mandarin.
Bryant was also among the first sports stars to embrace the social media platform Weibo, launching his account in 2013. After a long gap, he returned to Weibo in 2015 to ask “What does ‘datie’ mean?”
The term, which literally means “hitting iron,” is used for missing shots in basketball, and tens of thousands of fans responded, many to poke fun at Bryant who was known for missing shots as much as hitting them.
Bryant inspired a generation of Chinese basketball players with his unmatched performance on the court, including a handful of NBA championship rings over a 20-year career. His crowning achievement arguably came in China when he guided Team USA to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
China loves a winner but beyond that, his attitude to training was another thing that endeared him to Chinese fans. He was known for getting up every day for his famous 4 am workouts.
Bryant also made philanthropic contributions in China, setting up a local charity and making sure his own U.S.-based charity did its bit by teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture to middle schoolers. He also played charity games in China.
Oddly for an athlete, Bryant’s popularity only grew after retiring. He remains the most followed Weibo account of any sports star and more than any NBA team. His following is more than any single NBA player and dwarfs soccer superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Last year, Bryant topped the NBA Red Card Report, which looks at the success of teams and athletes across Chinese social media platforms.
He visited China for a 16th year in a row in 2019, touring the country and answering fans’ questions through videos. He was there to launch the FIBA World Cup, the world championship of basketball, in China.
Bryant led the way for such tours, which have become a staple for stars across all sports.
Dwyane Wade, the third most popular former NBA player after Bryant and Tracy McGrady, is a regular visitor to China and signed up to replace Jeremy Lin as a judge on the Chinese competition show Dunk of China.
Bryant, too, was doing Chinese TV back in 2008, with the reality show Kobe Mentu (“Kobe’s Disciples”).
For much of the past decade, Bryant has ranked at the top of NBA jersey sales in China, a statistic that’s apparent walking through any Chinese city.
Millions tuned into his final game, where he dropped 60 points to bow out in trademark style. His retirement in 2016 was a trending topic on Weibo, garnering over a billion views.
Behind the numbers was an outsize personality who came across as genuine and generous. Bryant’s death will leave a massive gap in China, and any sports star who hopes to fill it will need to take his path to engaging with China to heart.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.