The Crazy, Scary Stories of Kobe Bryant's Insane Popularity in China
Kobe Bryant is in danger.
It’s not the Achilles injury. It's not the knee procedure.
It’s the Chinese.
On Friday, Bryant is heading to China with the Lakers for the NBA Global Games exhibition promotion. And by now, this much is clear: The Chinese people cannot control themselves when it comes to their fanaticism for Bryant.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Judy Seto, Bryant’s trusted physical therapist who will be making her fourth tour of China with him.
Even though Lakers fans were disappointed to hear on Wednesday that Bryant is still expecting “three strong weeks of pushing the stamina” before he’s really ready to play, he is nearing the finish of this long, arduous recovery from Achilles tendon surgery in April.
He just has to make it back to L.A. from China on Oct. 19 in one piece.
The passion for Kobe in China, as Seto explains, usually goes from amazing to overzealous to…we’ve got to get the hell out of here!
Seto’s best example of the Chinese fandom is when 15,000 fans were waiting for Bryant at one venue at 9 in the morning.
“He wasn’t going to appear until 4 in the afternoon,” she said.
The Western world got a singular taste of this over the summer. One Chinese man did a TV interview just after catching a glimpse of Bryant and could not control himself, sobbing and knocking his glasses askew as he wiped away tears.
“People are chasing the van…and then people start kissing the windows,” Seto said. “Sometimes it’s scary, especially because when I go, there’s a reason I’m there: For this last go-around (in August) with the Achilles tendon repair, I had to make sure there were no times when he was in a spot where it’s not safe.”
Seto, who has been with Bryant for two of his eight consecutive Nike tours of China and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, has learned from experience by now.
“One of the scariest times was a few years back after he had the knee surgery, and we were in China and he was at an outdoor basketball court having a clinic,” Seto said. “For whatever reason, he decides to throw his shoes into the crowd. Now he’s barefoot. And he can’t run.
“He decides to move to the next venue, which is an outdoor, elevated tennis court—and people are starting to follow him, like the Pied Piper. And now he starts to jog a little bit. So then they jog. And then he starts to run—barefoot still.
“He goes up to this caged tennis court, and now he’s trapped, and he has no shoes. I’m telling him, ‘Could you not throw your shoes in the crowd ever again?!’ ”
We’ll see the madness firsthand when Bleacher Report follows Bryant and the Lakers to Beijing. The Lakers will visit the Great Wall of China on their first full day overseas.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak is bringing his wife and two children for the cultural experience; most players are bringing loved ones along. Roster hopeful Marcus Landry is sure to be everybody’s best friend after spending part of last year playing for the Shanghai Sharks.
(Landry has already been asked by a Lakers coach to set up some steeply cost-efficient suits over there, and he told his horror story in the locker room of the time he freaked out buying groceries when his basket accidentally got snagged on some stubborn chicken feet, a Chinese food delicacy but terrifying to a guy from Milwaukee.)
Bryant will not be joining the team excursion to the Great Wall, which is at least an hour’s drive north of Beijing.
In August, Bryant visited the Terracotta Warriors in the city of Xi’an, the noted archaeological find with thousands of life-size figures in the form of an underground army. He was fired up to visit the three pits, but had to cut his outing short.
“We made it to only one,” Seto said, “because people just started following him. They stopped looking at the sites. They were just following him.”
Xi’an was the city where Bryant also wanted to see the Shaanxi History Museum. Despite a hellacious crowd nearly trapping him in his hotel, Bryant got there, enjoyed the tour and made it back.
Problem was, the mayor of the city had been scheduled to meet Bryant at the museum for an official welcome. The mayor, though, got trapped in the mob and couldn’t get there.
Consider one mayor/Kobe fan none too pleased.
“We found out the next day that the mayor put the event planner in jail for the night,” Seto said.
Seto is of Chinese descent, so she is well suited to understand why Bryant’s fans in China are what she calls “a thousand times more intense.”
“It’s different. You can feel it,” she said. “When we went to Europe, they weren’t chasing him. He didn’t feel like he couldn’t go out. People would still recognize him, things like that, but in China, it’s crazy.”
Part of it is how big basketball has become in China since Yao Ming’s work as a pioneer for the sport. Part of it is the Lakers’ global brand, which Seto understands from first working with Jerry West in 1990, consulting for the team ever since and being hired full-time—at Bryant’s behest—in 2011 as the team’s head physical therapist.
But much of the explanation is Bryant’s dedication to cultivating the market, visiting China eight consecutive NBA offseasons for Nike promotion and venturing to so many different spots on the map.
“He’s made an effort to cultivate that relationship every year,” Seto said. “And it’s not just, ‘Let me make this stop at this store.’ It’s, ‘Let me hold this clinic to work with some of the kids and spend some time with them. Let me understand what this city has in terms of culture or the main manufacturing or what’s the main draw.’
“It’s not, ‘Where are we today and what can I get from this city?’ It’s, ‘I want to understand and be a part of this while I’m here.’”
Bryant will respectfully rib Seto for constantly pursuing higher levels of education. But before all those additional degrees and certifications, Seto got her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and psychology from UCLA.
Even if understanding the body’s chain of alignment became her mastery, she gets how the mind works, too. She certainly knows how Bryant’s mind works by now. And because of her Chinese heritage, Seto gets how some of these rabid fans think.
There might actually be a rational explanation for all of this.
“My personal opinion: It’s a common trait in Chinese culture that they appreciate hard work—and they appreciate that in Kobe,” Seto said. “They recognize that hard work in him; they really admire that. So they embrace him.
“He has been consistent all along his entire career. He has worked hard his whole life, and even at this stage of the game, he’s working even harder. I don’t think he takes things for granted. And I think people there embrace that ideal.”
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.
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