Basketball fans around the world were heartbroken when retired NBA player Kobe Bryant, 41, passed away on January 26, 2020 due to a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. Thousands of Lakers fans gathered in Los Angeles the following week to pay tribute to the basketball icon. In light of his impressive accomplishments on and off the court—including five championships, four All-Star Game MVPs, and millions of dollars donated to charity—Bryant’s death had a major impact on the sporting world.
It might come as a surprise, though, that the majority of Kobe Bryant admirers live not in the United States, but in China. Bryant received the title of “Cultural Ambassador” from the Asia Society and established the Kobe Bryant China Fund, a charity that donates supplies to impoverished children. Known as “Little Flying Warrior” to his Chinese fan base, he was adored by generations of basketball players and fans, who have continued to express their grief on social media since the tragedy. One hashtag on Weibo, #科比去世# (kēbǐ qùshì – #KobeDied), has accumulated six billion views and over two million engagements. Even “Xinhua,” China’s official state-run newspaper, published an article in late February calling Bryant “an inspiring player, husband, father, friend and philanthropist.”
Kobe Bryant’s powerful legacy speaks to three cultural phenomena in China:
1 Basketball’s Rising Popularity
In the sporting scene, China is commonly known for table tennis, martial arts and badminton due to the successful performance of its athletes in international competitions. But one of the country’s most popular sports is basketball. According to NBA officials, over 300 million Chinese people—nearly one fourth of China’s total population—actively play the sport. Bryant’s death triggered such a large outpour of grief in part because basketball is a prominent national pastime. Not only is it economical to construct and play on courts, but the game received a huge boost in popularity among young people after the Houston Rockets drafted Chinese basketball star Yao Ming in 2002.
2 An Open China
Chinese society during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) might have been closed off to foreign influence, but contemporary China’s enthusiastic reception of Kobe Bryant and recent mourning of his death demonstrate that cultural attitudes have changed. The fact that hundreds of millions of people across a wide demographic range idolize a foreign sports figure suggests China can be a highly open and accepting environment.
3 Millennials’ Expanding Online Presence
Chinese people needed access to the internet to follow Bryant’s career overseas. Because of the one-child policy, which limited urban families to one child, most Chinese millennials did not have siblings while growing up. For socializing and entertainment, they relied heavily on the internet and social media. Today, over 90% of China’s 400 million millennials own a smartphone—convenient for watching basketball highlights on the subway ride home from work. Young peoples’ tech-savvy nature and massive online presence might explain how Kobe Bryant gained so many Chinese followers in recent years.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy has influenced hundreds of millions of basketball fans and players in China. As an international sports icon, he not only contributed to basketball’s growing popularity, but also strengthened Chinese peoples’ connection with the rest of the sporting world. For that, he will be remembered.