Kobe Bryant Was the United States’ Best Ambassador in China

The basketball legend’s death was bigger than virus news in a country that loved him.

Former NBA player Kobe Bryant attends a basketball teaching activity in Haikou in China's southern Hainan province on Sept. 12, 2017.
Former NBA player Kobe Bryant attends a basketball teaching activity in Haikou in China's southern Hainan province on Sept. 12, 2017. STR/AFP via Getty Images

When news of the basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash broke Sunday, his death was perhaps mourned even more widely in China than in his home. The hashtag about Bryant’s death on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social networking platform, had accumulated 3 billion views by midafternoon, shooting to the top of trending searches and temporarily burying discussion about the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, which has dominated Chinese social media for the past week. Even state media weighed in, with the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily saying of Bryant: “His fearless spirit of fighting, both on the court and in real life, is worth remembering.”

Basketball has been in China almost since the sport’s invention, after YMCA missionaries brought it to the country in the 1890s. People’s Liberation Army soldiers played basketball during downtime between bitter marches and battles throughout the 1930s; during Mao Zedong’s era, basketball was encouraged, and it was one of only two sports (along with table tennis) to survive the crackdown on Western imports during the Cultural Revolution. Basketball courts are an economical use of space in urban China, where real estate is at a premium. Not all Chinese schools have soccer fields, but they all have basketball courts.

American basketball, however, did not enjoy the huge following in China it has today until the 7-foot-6-inch star Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets as starting center in 2002 and the NBA captured the imagination of the country. Yao acted as a gateway for Chinese fans to look to American basketball stars of that era, and Bryant was the most popular. For most of this decade, Bryant had the highest-selling jersey in China, eclipsing even Yao. When I started teaching English at a Chinese public high school in 2014, I found that Kobe was the most popular name among my male students. Those not called Kobe were often named after either LeBron James, Derrick Rose, or Stephen Curry.

For a long time, the NBA served as a largely uncontroversial (and highly lucrative) channel of diplomacy between the United States and China—one where Bryant was the primary ambassador. Bryant was even declared a cultural ambassador by the Asia Society in 2009 at a ceremony attended by the Communist Party politician and sports director Liu Peng. Bryant visited China during every off season and continued to visit frequently after his retirement. He attended store openings, held clinics to teach basketball skills, and made high-profile visits to classic Chinese sites like the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Everywhere he went, he was mobbed with fans.

Bryant also established the charitable Kobe Bryant China Fund, which donated supplies to poor children with the backing of the Chinese government. In the United States, the fund sponsored Chinese cultural activities like Mandarin-language lessons and Chinese cooking classes. Bryant was by all accounts incredibly kind and generous with his Chinese fans. Two days before he died, he had posted a Lunar New Year greeting video on his Weibo, wishing his “dear friends in China” a happy and prosperous Year of the Rat.

The NBA also provided the basis for person-to-person cultural exchange. During the aughts, the affable Yao humanized China to Americans amid hysterical speculation about the “rising dragon” in the U.S. press. When I first came to China, I frequently found myself wishing I followed the NBA so I could discuss it with people. Love of basketball crosses class lines. Taxi drivers who might not know who is running for U.S. president can tell you the names of plenty of second-tier American cities thanks to the NBA. When the Chinese stunt-drinking sensation Hebei Pangzai first started blowing up on Twitter, he bonded with his fans by discussing classic San Antonio Spurs games (although he has unfortunately since deleted those tweets).

This utopian cultural exchange was also lubricated by unimaginable heaps of money, most of it flowing into the United States. It’s estimated that China is a $4 billion market for the NBA. Around 500 million Chinese people watched at least one NBA game last season, which is more than the entire U.S. population. The Rockets remain the most popular team in China, and last year the ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski worked with the internet giant Tencent to develop his own Chinese market-facing show, Woj in the House.

Furthermore, the association of the NBA and its star players with sportswear behemoths like Nike and Adidas helped introduce those brands to the Chinese market, where they remain incredibly popular. (Bryant’s trips to China were frequently sponsored by Nike.) This asymmetrical flow of cash was always obvious, but it never dampened the enthusiasm and passion Chinese fans held for the NBA.

Then, last fall, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s fight for freedom. While Chinese social media went apoplectic, the Chinese Basketball Association and numerous sponsors rushed to cut ties with the Rockets. The windfall the NBA had been making in China for decades suddenly became both a sore subject and a source of leverage. In an emotional post shared widely on Weibo, the Chinese NBA reporter Yuan Fang expressed his outrage not only about Morey’s tweet but that Wojnarowski had “liked” that tweet. “If you want to become even more popular, make even more money—no problem,” Yuan wrote. “But you have to understand that China is not a country of moneyed idiots. You have to understand that in this world, in this world, there is only one China.” Wojnarowski’s show became a casualty of the crisis.

Throughout the fiasco, Bryant wisely stayed silent. The outpouring of grief on Chinese social media, untempered by the concern about abuse allegations that complicate his legacy in the United States, shows that his popularity will remain even if relations between the two countries crumble. With Bryant’s death, the NBA has lost its greatest ambassador and so too perhaps has Sino-American relations.