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.
“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.”
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.”