Kobe Bryant's Final NBA Game: Black Mamba Mania Sweeps China
Bryant is by far the most popular Western athlete in the world's most populous nation — one Chinese TV star even gave him a sword before the Lakers game as a token of gratitude.
As chants of "Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!" showered down on the Staples Center Wednesday night, an echo could be heard loud and clear coming from China, a hemisphere away.
In an astonishing finish to his 20-season NBA career, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points during his last game as a Laker, helping Los Angeles defeat the Utah Jazz 101-96. And in China, Kobe's legions of fans were cheering him on just as ecstatically as much of southern California.
"He's still challenging himself at the last minute!" wrote Chinese actress Li Bingbing on social media service Weibo, where she has 37.6 million followers. "An incredible legend," she continued, "The Black Mamba has no need for regret or sadness. Salute!"
Ever since the career of retired Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, basketball has been a phenomenon in the Middle Kingdom. The NBA estimates that there are over 300 million people who play basketball in China — a number equal to about 95 percent of the entire population of the United States.
Kobe, with Nike's support, has made a concerted effort throughout the past decade to engage his Chinese fans. And they love him for it. No Western sports star has inspired quite the same level of adulation in China as Xiao Fei Xia (小飞侠), or the "Little Flying Warrior," as he is known locally.
While fan tributes under the hashtag #MambaDay were pouring into Twitter last night (with congratulatory celeb tweets coming from figures ranging from Kanye West to Miles Teller to Bill Clinton), #ThankYouKobe was sweeping Weibo, even though the Lakers game was taking place during a Thursday morning workday in Beijing. Chinese mobile messaging service WeChat was also rife with Kobe-crazed tributes.
Chinese actor Li Yifeng tweeted that he was invited by Kobe to Los Angeles to attend the game. The Chinese star shared several photos with his 29 million Weibo followers. A few shots show him hanging out with Kobe and getting an autograph. In another he's seen presenting Kobe with a giant broadsword as a token of gratitude (Li is currently starring in Chinese period drama, Legend of the Ancient Sword) “I finally met you," Li wrote. "I hope tomorrow comes soon and also hope it never comes."
Shortly before game time, Kobe shared a short video with his own 4.2 million Chinese followers, thanking them for the decades of support and inspiration.
Last week, Nike also released a dramatic 60-second tribute commercial to Kobe's career in China. According to producers, Kobe was directly involved in developing the spot's message.
"Kobe has an intimate relationship with Chinese ballers, so he knows exactly how to teach and motivate them," Terence Leong, creative director of W+K Shanghai, which created the commercial told Ad Week. "Together with Nike China and Kobe, our team crafted the script and made sure the film was just as provocative as the man himself."
Watch Kobe's video messages to China below.