The Uncontrollable, Full-Contact Love For Kobe Bryant in Far East

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BEIJING – There was no buildup, no slow rumble from an initial sighting growing into a crescendo as more people realized the moment had arrived. Just a burst.

Kobe Bryant emerged from the tunnel and the crowd instantly ignited in a way that could only mean one thing: Their eyes had been locked on that tunnel near one corner of the court inside MasterCard Center. The Lakers and Warriors were 1 minute 15 seconds away from starting the only NBA game in Beijing all year and the guy who wouldn’t play while recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, wouldn’t even suit up — or Friday in Shanghai — as the teams finished the two-game series, was commanding the attention.

Bryant in Asia is somewhere along the lines of phenomena and cultural connection he sometimes struggles to explain. North America, of course. Even Europe, because he spent so many years of his youth in Italy as his father,  Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played there. Adult Kobe routinely holds conversations in Italian. There is no tangible connection to the Far East, though.

And yet, madness. It was a Tuesday night in MasterCard Center this time, but really, it’s every time he visits the region for promotions or games, year after year. The only disappointment in this sighting was that he was in a dark suit, white kerchief in the breast pocket, long-sleeve dress shirt open at the collar and dark shoes. Anytime Bryant was shown on the overhead video scoreboard sitting on the bench, the crowd roared. When he joined Golden State’s Stephen Curry at midcourt just before tip to thank the fans for coming, the simple act of saying hello in Chinese – “Nihao!” – triggered another loud cheer.

“Well first of all, he’s playing for the Lakers,” NBA commissioner David Stern said in explaining special Bryant relationship here. “He’s been playing for a very long time, as viewership and interest in our game has grown dramatically. And he has come to this country quite often and understands what it is to cultivate a fan base which totally understands that he has, shall I say, the heart of a champion. His Chinese fans totally expect him, beyond all odds, to make a full recovery from his injury because they have come to have enormous confidence in his ability and his determination. I think that’s because he’s shown the ability and determination at different stages of his career to win, to play at his highest and to elevate his teammates.”

Bryant is ruling out a victory-lap season in Asia after hanging it up from the NBA, just as he dismisses the notion of a farewell in Europe as a full-circle moment – “When I’m retired, I’m retired,” he said. Given his popularity in the Far East, though, it’s not a crazy notion.

“It’s harder for me to walk around here than it is in the States,” Bryant said.

Seriously.

“Yeah,” he insisted. “In the States, you’re getting a lot of recognition – ‘Hi’ and they want autographs and pictures and so forth and so on. Out here, it’s uncontrollable. It’s uncontrollable. They really rush you and surround you. It becomes something where you can’t go out.”

Kobe Bryant is swarmed by fans shortly after arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport.

Kobe Bryant is swarmed by fans shortly after arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport.

Being beloved here is much more of a contact sport, the way fans surge to get close for interaction and security forces routinely get physical in seemingly calm situations. (Sunday, A.C. Green, here as an ambassador for the league, approached the rope line outside the hotel both teams shared. When a girl, appearing to be in her mid-teens, walked quick to be sure not to miss an autograph, a guard knocked her off stride with a forearm shove. It was left to Green to signal to security to ease up.) And Bryant can’t exactly take a lot of casual strolls in public in America, either. Now imagine that, multiply, and welcome to Bryantmania in the Far East.

“I think when I first started, I was just doing camps out here, just doing clinics,” he said. “I came out here, the reaction, the passion they had for the game was fun to be around. It was like you were teaching the game to people who really want to learn, have a thirst to learn. Because of it, I just kept coming back. When I first started coming to Beijing, there was no print ads, there was no billboards. There was nothing going on. It wasn’t what it is now. I just came out because I enjoyed it.

“I think if you go back to the States, for example, fans have gone kind of through this progression of hero marketing. They kind of lived through that in the ‘80s with Michael, Magic and kind of having that fanaticism with fans. Now I think it’s evolved. With so many media outlets, it’s evolved to something beyond that. We’re a little more desensitized by celebrities (in the United States). Out here, not so much. It’s something that’s kind of relatively new.”

Last season was Bryant’s 17th in the NBA and still he was No. 3 in jersey sales in China, behind only Derrick Rose and LeBron James. (Bryant was also No. 3 overall worldwide and in the United States and Europe individually.) He has a relationship with Asia and here in the world’s most-populous nation in particular.

He has that burst.

“I don’t know,” Bryant said of what has become a never-ending popularity in the face of waves of younger players. “They (fans) really just gravitate. I think it’s a combination of the game, I think it’s a combination of kind of the ups and downs of my career, battling through injury and that sort of stuff, and the work ethic. Those are things that transfer very easily.”

22 Comments

  1. pacquiaoverated says:

    this just boils down to how much he wanted to get another ring before he retires he ain’t young anymore he is on a decline add to that injuries he will still ballhog that’s who he is and will ever be, but times is changing more and more players are faster can jump more, more athletic than him, so he should throw out the window his attitude of a one man team, me and me only, and accept the TEAM concept sacrifice, be a second or third option of the recruit superstar, he ain’t the alpha forever, he is like Iverson who wants the limelight all to himself, hog the ball wherein he shoots the ball 40 times and the nearest teammate shoots it less than 8 shots a game, to the guy who said Kobe facilitates for 3 quarters you are a joke sir watch more Lakers game and look at Kobe’s shot average and percentages. the best there is there ever be ballhog player in the world.

  2. Go Kobe! He is now running full sprints; next up is JUMPING!

  3. Adam says:

    Most of Asia love basketball, Kobe Bryant being good and great in what he does, always attracts attention. So did Lebron James when he came to visit in some parts of Asia, so did a lot of superstars who visited and maybe other superstars who will plan to visit. The love for basketball is always there in Asia, it only depends on who comes to visit…and if the player who visits is very good at it, there will always be uncontrollable, full-contact love. Even if you bring the legends Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. not to mention Michael Jordan, the fascination and admiration of Asian fans to basketball players will always be there. The reception is tantamount to the player’s contribution to the world of basketball.

  4. pacquiaoverated says:

    @Adam what are you? a racist? just because one comes from the far east he aint suppose to be a basketball fan? what a joke. just because kobe brings in 80 million he is entitled for 30 million a year? how many years does kobe had in this league? how many 100 millions he got from endorsement? he aint a back up player who needs to jump on the moolah once available, if he is really after the TEAM after championship he should be able to sacrifice for the whole of the team, this just shows he is a ballhog one man team who is after scoring stats. why can some players sacrifice money for the sake of winning and someone like kobe who has everything in the world and financially would last him and all his family several lifetimes wont? he said just this offseason even the next year he wont budge from his 30 million a year salary. talk about ballhog on and off the court.

    • Fr4nk says:

      How is Kobe a ballhog? For years his main role for the first 3 quarters of each game was a facilitator. MJ never had to be that type of player. MJ shot whenever he felt to. Kobe shoots only when the offense breaks down and he has 10 seconds to act…then he gets the ball in his hands. In the 4th quarter he’s expected to take over if needed, that’s his job as a HERO.

  5. pacquiaoverated says:

    I’m from far east and I never liked Kobe, I have high regards for the likes of magic, bird, Russell, etc, Kobe is just a ballhog who wants nothing but individual scoring he won’t even back down from his 30million salary to help make the TEAM get better players for them to compete, it’s all him just give him the ball and stay away mentality.

    • The amount of revenue he generates to the Lakers merit those 30 million and more, make no mistake.

    • Adam says:

      Doubt you are from far east, being that you claim to love Bird even though basketball hasnt grown in China until the last 15 yrs or so. Also, Jerry Buss once said Kobe brings in over $80 million a year to Lakers in revenue. Why cant he make $30 for ONE year out of 17. Geesh.

  6. Kubchaser says:

    I was born in Taiwan and then moved to Canada when I was young. Growing up Kobe has always been the superstar among our Asian friends. Kobe has the “moves” that no other current superstars have. His fade aways, his dunks, his jump shots and his footworks are above and beyond. Yes, Lebron is stronger in today’s basketball, but he doesn’t have the kind of moves the International fans adore.

  7. me90 says:

    how does that improve the Lakers chances of winning another championship?

  8. KobeFan says:

    Kobe is the best. Lebron doesn’t deserve the cover. Kobe had more championships at Lebron’s age

    • justsayin says:

      Be fair he actually won the title without the refs help this time – which merits a cover.

      However giving him his own mode like MJ had is just re-GD-diculous.

      • haciendachinh says:

        don’t be an idiot all your life. it’s all about marketing. right now bron-bron is the main cash cow. they have to put their product in everything as much as possible. nike made so much money they spawned a jordan brand. it more than doubled their profit (people are still buying everything jordan). a lot of companies were convinced to get in on the easy money rainfall.
        if putting justin beiber on the cover will mean more sheep will buy, you can bet your dog’s left nut they will do it.

      • shubulubadingdong says:

        justsayin frist off kobe didnt get no refs help hell win a championship on his own. N he aint like l;ebron who needs 2 other star players to win a championship. MJ is good but not kobe good.

  9. Frankie says:

    Kobe,in my heart,already NO.1,instead of MJ. Go on to create the history!

  10. ajpotpot(Philippines) says:

    did you know that howard was “Booed” here in the Philippines by the solid Kobe Bryant/Lakers Fans the first step howard made inside our Mall of Asia Arena, that was another testament of kobe’s influence, just informing, ^_^

  11. Patty says:

    There is only one Kobe Bryant. He is the Greatest Ever!!1

    • Howard says:

      Kobe is great. Not try to take away his work ethic or his greatness. But being a Lakers help too. See what Lebron, Camelo and any great player missed out? Does Lebron get this kind of popularity being in Miami? He would’ve gotten more popular oversea had he been a Lakers.

  12. Gary says:

    Kobe’s popularity can be stem from the character Rukawa from the Slam Dunk anime and manga series which was one of the catalyst to why basketball is so well received in China. Prior to the 90s, before this anime became wide-spread in all of Asia, basketball was not as popular. Since then basketball have become almost the national sport.

    Kobe’s style of play, work ethic, size, and talent – parallels that of Rukawa, one of the beloved character of that anime.

    Chinese generally prefer hard work and underdog over raw talent and big size, thus leading to more fanaticism and ‘idolizing’ of Koba and MJ rather than of Shaq, or Lebron or even Yao (although he is Chinese).

    Chinese would gravitate more on small size and speed from players like Derrick Rose (which validates his popularity in China as well) and of Jeremy Lin on overcoming the ‘standard’ player archetype.

    It is surprising most NBA fans do not know of Slam Dunk anime or manga because anyone who watch it or read it would instantly want to go play basketball – because the story and the writing is just that damn good.

    • JAY says:

      Gary, I think Rukawa is Scottie Pippen and Sakuragi is Rodman. As you can see their team uniform matches the Bulls. In kainan, the PG is Magic Johnson while Sendo and that big monkey is John Stockton and Malone.

      Kobe is too young to be known during these anime.