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Kobe Bryant and his legacy in China

By Li Zhenyu (People's Daily Online)    17:25, April 06, 2020

Basketball is currently one of the most popular sports in China, and has a large number of people involved with the game. Kobe Bryant, one of China's most beloved basketball players who died in a helicopter crash not long ago, was the man who inspired the generation to play, watch and cheer the sport in the basketball-loving country.

Widely recognized as one of the most brilliant basketball players of all time, Kobe Bryant is perhaps the closest thing this generation has witnessed to basketball greatness.

Over the course of his 20-year illustrious career as a shooting guard, he won five NBA championships and was named the league Finals MVP twice.

His record 81-point game was the second most points scored in a match in the history of the game, behind Wilt Chamberlain's famous 100-point mark in 1962.

When he retired in 2016, Kobe Bryant was the third-leading scorer in the history of the league.

However, his winning momentum did not come to an end with his retirement as a basketball player.

Following his splendid basketball career, Kobe Bryant started up a production company and entered the entertainment industry.

More surprisingly, in 2018, he won an Academy Award for best short animated film—"Dear Basketball", which he wrote and narrated. It was based on a poem he wrote for The Players' Tribune in 2015, a masterpiece that expressed his love for basketball.

From his remarkable 81-point performance to his five NBA titles to his Oscar acceptance speech, Kobe Bryant will leave behind a lasting legacy.

One of his legacies that cannot be denied was his pioneering impact on China and China's basketball business.

For the past 20 years, Kobe Bryant has been a household name in China. He has had a legion of hard-core fans in the world's most populous nation.

In China, Kobe Bryant's jersey has been among the most popular player's jersey year in and year out, even surpassing China's own basketball kingpin Yao Ming.

His popularity in China even eclipsed his fandom level in his own country. Chinese people simply love Kobe and always will. And, the international superstar loved China back, having called it his "home away from home".

Whenever Kobe went to China, thousands of Chinese fans gathered merely to catch a glimpse of him. It was a mob scene.

"Flying Hero" was one of the many nicknames his Chinese fans have given him.

Kobe Bryant has built a large following in China, which made him one of the biggest international sports stars in the country.

That's why his massive Chinese fan base was overwhelmingly shocked and upset when they learned of his death in a helicopter crash earlier this year. They posted millions of tributes on social media.

Just two days before his death, Kobe Bryant posted a video on Chinese social media wishing his Chinese fans a happy Chinese New Year.

"Happy new year, my dear friends in China," said Kobe Bryant in the short video. "Thank you for your support this year where you've shown passion and dedication through your hard work. I wish you happiness, health and inner magic to achieve more success in the upcoming year of the mouse. Love, Kobe."

Kobe Bryant's popularity in China was not an accident.

Timing as well as his sensational on-court prowess played a key part in this process.

China's fan base in basketball expanded substantially after the native star Yao Ming was drafted with the No. 1 pick of the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets.

Yao Ming's stardom was significant in truly engaging the Chinese fans with basketball. The Chinese people's interest in the sport would not have increased as fast as it did should Yao Ming had been a below-the-average bench player. Conversely, Yao Ming had an outstanding career on the international stage, which helped fuel the Chinese people's passion in the sport.

This is where timing plays a key role. From the 2002-2003 through the 2012-2013 seasons, Kobe Bryant was absolutely one of the best players in the sport, which contributed greatly to his popularity in China.

However, it was not barely his dazzling on-court performance that made him so big in China, but also what he had done off the court.

Over the years, Kobe Bryant had exerted himself to build a personal connection with the Chinese public.

Kobe Bryant wasn't the first international basketball superstar to visit China, but he was the first to visit China on a constant basis.

A frequent visitor to China since 1998, Kobe Bryant became really well-known among Chinese fans in 2001, when he made a famous dunk on top of the Great Wall of China, according to ESPN.com. Once his popularity in China became well established, he began to visit the country almost year after year.

In Kobe Bryant's own words, he has visited China "almost every year", including his last visit in October 2019. His bond with the country was so close that he acknowledged China felt like a "second home".

During these visits, he leveraged his fame to build strong connective connections with a massive and adoring Chinese fan base.

Nike, a global sportswear brand which contributed to China's rapid rise in basketball, was one of Kobe Bryant's primary sponsors. The brand was also an official sponsor of China's own basketball league—Chinese Basketball Association. It has spared no effort to capture the Chinese consumers. All of Nike's efforts have made Kobe Bryant the flagship name on Team Nike, the equivalent of China's basketball.

Being a part of China's commercialism has helped strengthen Kobe Bryant's recognition in the country and helped to keep his status as one of China's major commercial sports figures.

Why did Kobe Bryant maintain such a close relationship with China?

"China has a large population and huge market potential," said Shi Mingshen, an expert on China's business and former deputy head of the economic department at People's Daily, "Kobe Bryant was a valuable brand for business."

As one of the world's most famed sports star, Kobe Bryant's marketability was second to none. This made him a valuable asset for brands aiming to build a global reputation.

Kobe Bryant and the businesses behind him understood this and the importance of China's market. And his success just so happened to meet with China's rapid economic rise and a growing middle class.

These are the factors that helped glorify Kobe Bryant's charisma on the court and also what helped to make him a sensation off the court.

The legacy of the basketball legend will continue to shine for the years to come. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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