Kobe Bryant: Why the L.A. Lakers Star Is So Big in China

William Van NollFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2011

Kobe Bryant: Why the L.A. Lakers Star Is So Big in China

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    When you're China's biggest basketball star, who needs the U.S.?  Ask Kobe Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, and he'll tell you that Kobe would be perfectly content playing in China during an extended NBA lockout.

    Kobe's agent recently proposed a barnstorming tour in China in which Bryant and other potential Pelinka clients, such as Derrick Williams, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon and Carlos Boozer, would play exhibition games in Shanghai should the start of the upcoming NBA season, if there is one, be delayed.

    China is a natural fit for Kobe as he's larger than life in the Middle Kingdom.  Kobe has the highest selling jersey in China, even eclipsing China's own Yao Ming.  But why is Kobe so big in China?  It's certainly no accident.

    Let's take a look at how Kobe came to captivate a nation of 1.3 billion people on the opposite side of the globe.

Sponsorships

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    Nike, one of Kobe's primary sponsors, has been on an all-out marketing blitz to capture Chinese consumers.  China now ranks as Nike's second largest market outside of the U.S.

    Through aggressive marketing, including sponsorship of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Nike has penetrated the major city markets of Shanghai and Beijing and is expanding into other smaller cities throughout China.

    Nike has also contributed to basketball's rapid rise in China.  Nike is an official sponsor of the nation's own basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association.  All of Nike's efforts have made Kobe, the top dog on Team Nike, synonymous with basketball in China.  

    While Nike promotes other NBA stars in China, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Kobe is the most successful and arguably the most charismatic spokesperson, thereby getting the lion's share of Nike publicity.

Charitable Ventures

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    Kobe Bryant is regarded as a charitable diplomat in China, being officially named a cultural ambassador by the Asia Society under the unspoken blessing of Liu Peng, China's Minister of Sport.

    In 2009, Kobe launched the Kobe Bryant China Fund, a charity set up to raise money for education, sports and cultural programs for youth in China.  

    Kobe kicked things off with a personal donation of 5 million yuan to the charity, which has raised over 42 million yuan since inception.  The Kobe Bryant China Fund even has the backing of the Chinese government.  

    The Kobe Bryant China Fund also works in tandem with his other foundation, the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation, to support Chinese culture in the U.S.  

    Specifically, the two foundations promote Chinese programs for American youth by offering Mandarin language lessons, Chinese cooking courses and martial arts classes to U.S. high school students.

    Bryant's goodwill and good-natured attempts to bridge the gap between China and the U.S. make him a natural target for the Chinese public's affection.

TV Shows and Commercials

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    Through brand appeal and great marketing, Kobe Bryant can be seen all across Chinese airwaves.  

    Years ago, Kobe partnered with Nike to launch his own reality show in China, Kobe Mentu, or "Kobe's Disciples," in which Chinese basketball players participate in drills and develop skills under Bryant's tutelage to win the ultimate sports competition.

    This past year, Kobe teamed up with pop star sensation Jay Chou for a national Sprite commercial, where Kobe and Jay play a game of one-on-one and learn a thing or two about staying hydrated.  This campaign even led to a Jay Chou-produced hip-hop video featuring No. 24 himself.

    Kobe has also been tagged to endorse products on Chinese television apart from those of his own sponsors.

    Earlier this year, Kobe Bryant starred in a Smart Car China commercial which put the Black Mamba right in the middle of a high-speed car chase through the streets of China in an effort to track down an art thief.  

    Being a visible part of Chinese commercialism has helped bolster Kobe's popularity and maintain his role as one of China's leading commercial sports figures.  

Approach to the Game

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    Kobe Bryant trains harder and longer than anyone in the NBA.  His 3:30 a.m. workouts are well documented, and his dedication to fitness and craft are second to none.  

    He is always working on new techniques to improve his game, like contacting Hall of Fame big man Hakeem Olajuwon to help improve his back-to-the-basket skill set.

    Kobe's game on the court is a methodical breakdown of defenders, setting players up and knocking them down one-by-one with an arsenal of dribble drives, footwork, pump fakes, and jump shots.  

    Kobe even gave us an unprecedented look at his methods of attack in the 2009 Spike Lee Documentary Kobe Doin' Work.

    This approach is equivalent to the Chinese martial art of Gung fu, or Kung fu, "merit master" and "one who is highly skilled."  

    The Chinese culture undoubtedly respects these elements of Kobe's game and appreciates the use of skill and guile to outmatch your opponent rather than the use of brute strength and brawn.

    It may be subtle to Westerners, but to the Chinese, it's quite palpable.

Championship Success

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    With five NBA Championships, Kobe Bryant has been the most successful basketball player over the past decade.  He is the closest thing this generation has seen to basketball greatness.  And his success just so happened to coincide with the rise of Chinese consumerism.

    Never before has the desire to purchase goods, services, products, brands, labels, and apparel been as great in China as it has over the past 10 years.

    Kobe Bryant hats, T-shirts, shoes, wallets, headphones, playing cards, bobbleheads, you name it, are being bought up by the same generation of Chinese consumers that watched Kobe win title after title since 2000.

    The Chinese, no different than any other culture, appreciate winning, and are able to show their support through consumer purchases in a far more open economy.

The Biggest U.S. Sports Star in China

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    The numbers don't lie—Kobe is the biggest NBA star in China.  China loves Kobe.  And, as with any healthy relationship, Kobe loves China back, calling it his "home away from home."  Should the NBA close its doors to a season next year, every international basketball league would be dying to have No. 24.  

    After New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams said he intends to play for a Turkish basketball team in the event of an extended lockout, the team's coach said they have their eyes on an even bigger star in Bryant, which of course started the rumor mills that this could be a real possibility (no indication from Kobe nor his agent on whether Kobe has any desire to play in Turkey).

    But the fact remains that thousands of miles across the world, an entire nation has embraced Bryant more so than any other American athlete, and if the time comes when NBA players need to search for basketball alternatives elsewhere, Kobe Bryant will most definitely go back "home" to China.