By Mac Cerullo
BU News Service
As Kobe Bryant walks away after a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, the future Hall of Famer is set to leave behind a complicated legacy.
Here in Boston, Bryant has long been an object of scorn, both for his personal failings and for his association with the hated Lakers, but across the country he is undoubtedly an icon who has influenced an entire generation of players. Yet when all is said and done, one of the most under-appreciated aspects of his legacy might turn out to be the impact he has made overseas, particularly in China.
I didn’t appreciate how big Bryant was in China until a couple of months ago, when I was with several of my classmates at the bar and our conversation turned to basketball. One of my friends, an international student from China named Season, told me that her favorite basketball player was Kobe Bryant. When I asked why, she gave me a surprising answer: “He’s really hot.”
Of all the words people use to describe the 37-year-old Bryant, hot isn’t usually one of them, but as it turns out, the man is a bona fide rock star in China, a phenomenon almost akin to The Beatles in their heyday.
If you stop and think about it, it actually makes sense. China first embraced basketball in the early 2000s after Yao Ming came to America, and back then, Bryant was in the prime of his career. Season explained that many young Chinese fans grew up watching him, and his emergence came at a time when China collectively became more open to foreign culture than ever before.
Bryant also embraced the Chinese fandom early on, hosting a clinic in the country in 1998 and then returning for a promotional tour in 2001. He has now visited the country every year since 2006 — most notably helping Team USA win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — when he emerged as the alpha dog on a team that also featured younger superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
He’s also starred in numerous commercials, hosted a reality TV show, and his jersey has been among the country’s top sellers every year since the league first began releasing its Chinese sales figures. As for the “hot” factor, Season said there’s just something about him that Chinese people love, and that combination of talent, attractiveness and good timing will likely allow his popularity to endure long after he retires.
“I guess after he retires, he would be seen as someone like Michael Jordan,” Season said. “I believe his jersey will still sell and his news will be translated into Chinese. And he might find a quick way to make money, travel to China and go on some shows and do commercial activities.”
The Jordan comparison might be especially apt in this case. The two were similar players who have been compared to each other since the day Bryant first came into the league. Jordan was also known to be a difficult teammate, and while he has never been accused of a serious crime like Bryant, he has been dogged by rumors of infidelity and gambling for many years.
But despite his personal shortcomings, Jordan remains a towering figure in America even almost two decades after his retirement. Bryant has never come close to achieving that level of adoration in the states, but in China it’s a whole different story.
In the coming days, weeks and years, Bryant’s legacy will surely be debated ad nauseam, but to the Chinese, he is the pinnacle of greatness. And while Bryant has never been one to publicly pine for adoration, if he secretly did hope to one day surpass Jordan, he can take solace in knowing that there is at least one place in the world where he succeeded.