BEIJING — The hero being worshipped understands the why and the how of it.
Kobe Bryant gets that the drive and perseverance he has demonstrated as a basketball player resonate with a Chinese culture that's all about dutiful work ethic and individual responsibility.
But more than anything, Bryant feels the where of it.
This is China, where the world is not free. Where the simple escape outlet to see a movie is limited to what the Communist government allows. Where uniting the world through Twitter or Facebook and the freedom to search Google is denied. Where you are allowed to have only one child.
When Bryant in basketball can be as liberated as he is while working as hard as he does, the impact in China becomes something he likens to the wonderful free ride that music takes us on in America.
“I think it strikes a chord with the fans out here,” Bryant said Monday in a quieter moment after nearly being trampled by Chinese reporters rushing to his first media access of the NBA Global Games. “It’s something that inspires them.”
In China, they have their reasons to be holding out for a hero till the end of the night.
“Fans (in the U.S.) have kind of gone through this progression of hero marketing,” Bryant said. “They kind of lived through that in the ‘80s with Michael and Magic and kind of having the fanaticism. Now I think it has evolved with so many media outlets. It has evolved to something beyond that where we’re a little bit more desensitized by celebrities. Out here, not so much.”
Under the oppression of Communist rule, they still aren’t footloose. So Bryant to them is much like Jordan was to us.
“It’s harder for me to walk around here than it is in the States,” Bryant said. “The States, you get a lot of recognition—'Hi' and they want your autograph and so forth and so on—but out here it’s uncontrollable. They really rush you and surround you, and it becomes something where you can’t go out.”
Nevertheless, Bryant has made himself available, coming to China on Nike promotional tours for eight consecutive years.
“It’s a big percentage of my Nike business,” he explained.
Yet even that enterprise is done with a nod to how and why he is on a pedestal here.
Bryant remembers what drew him to a Yao Ming-boosted China in the first place: the honest love for learning the game's fundamentals that he felt in the basketball clinics he conducted in 1998.
“The passion they have for the game was fun to be around,” he recalled. “It was like you were teaching the game to people who really want to learn, who have a thirst to learn. So because of it, I just started coming back.”
Bryant said he hasn’t expanded his product line to meet the massive demand in China because he doesn’t want it to seem “gimmicky” or like he's straying from “innovation.” He wants his connection with this market to remain rooted in something real.
“It’s very important for me to challenge them, to inspire them as much as possible,” he said. “I refuse to do it just for the sake of generating revenue.”
There was a sense about Bryant on Monday that he knows there’s much to live up to here. After weeks of limited updates on his rehabilitation from April surgery for his torn Achilles tendon, Bryant was forthcoming about his excitement over the progress.
“If today was a playoff or NBA Finals [game], could I play? Probably,” Bryant said.
If that game were in China, there would be riots if he didn’t play.
Despite playing his entire career in Los Angeles, it’s safe to say that there is no more of a home game for Bryant anywhere than in China.
So the hero not being healthy enough to play in exhibition games this week in Beijing and Shanghai is no small loss to worshippers such as the one Bryant's trainer Tim Grover recalls seeing on one of his recent China tours.
“He must have climbed a fence that was 30 feet up in the air,” Grover said. “He was sitting there trying to get a picture of Kobe. And Kobe, when he was leaving, took off his shoes and threw his shoe into the crowd. This guy, he just took a leap of faith from 30 feet up, just diving and trying to get the shoe. Didn’t think twice about it.”
Grover, who has worked closely and traveled with both Michael Jordan and Bryant, remembers Jordan being titled “The Basketball God” in China for the inspiration he provided during his career and even now. Grover has also been on site with Bryant in recent years when the Chinese government, citing too many fans, has shut down Bryant’s promotional events.
To Grover, it’s important to understand just how drawn Chinese fans are to the individual’s power to rise above.
“They’re not Lakers fans or Heat fans or anything; they are fans of the super superstars of the NBA,” he said. “And of all the current players in the NBA, and I’ve traveled with quite a few of them, Kobe is by far the No. 1.”
Kevin Ding covers the Lakers and the NBA for Bleacher Report.