Kobe Fever Sweeps China as Lakers, Warriors Face Off in Beijing

AP Photo/Daniel Johnston
Kobe Bryant

The NBA is hoping the preseason games held in China will build on the popularity of basketball in the country, where there were 4.5 billion visits to the league's website last season.

BEIJING – China is officially a secular Communist state, but devotion to basketball is close to a religion, and fans here were positively ecstatic at the arrival of their idol, Kobe Bryant, in the world's most populous nation this week.

The Black Mamba's legions of fans trilled with ecstasy at his every move, even though he was consigned to the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers during their defeat to Oakland's Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

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Bryant was nursing a torn Achilles tendon, and was clearly missed, both by his team, who lost 105-95 in the preseason fixture, and by the Chinese fans, who chanted his name constantly throughout the game.

Injury or no injury, there is some serious love for Kobe in this part of the world.

"I love Kobe for his fortitude, his consistent effort and his unbreakable skills," wrote Shen Xiao 0828, on their Sina Weibo microblog. The name "Kobe Bryant" has had 60 million hits on Weibo, and he has 2.4 million fans on one fan site alone.

"I love his personality and his spirituality as much as I love his basketball. I think he is very strong and very manly," Shen xiao 0828 added in another post. 

The teams move on to Shanghai for a game on Friday, where more fans will be waiting.

"I really want to see Kobe. Nothing is more exciting than seeing Kobe. Shanghai fans, you are so lucky," wrote another Weibo user, Chen Tienan 400.

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Bryant himself has confessed to being somewhat overwhelmed by the reception.

"It's harder for me to walk around here than it is in the [United] States," he told the Los Angeles Times. "In the States, you get a lot of recognition -- 'hi,' and they want autographs and pictures and so forth and so on. Out here, it's uncontrollable. They really rush you and surround you and then it becomes something where you can't go out."

Basketball has been popular since missionaries first shot hoops here in the 19th century -- but the game's ascendance really took off when China's own 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002. Yao is retired now, though he remains a hugely popular figure in China, and his legacy is a powerful one.

Last year, the NBA’s Chinese website registered 3.3 billion page views; this year, that number rose by 34 percent to 4.5 billion page views, while during the 2012-13 regular season, total video streams for the NBA rose 169 percent over the 2011-12 season, from 1.2 billion to 3.2 billion.

Stephen Curry, who added 24 points for the Warriors, brought his family, including his wife, daughter and parents, to China, and said the Great Wall visit didn't disappoint them.

"It was an awesome trip. You see pictures of the wall and hear of it, but seeing it in person is a really cool opportunity. We had great pictures, and we all had good times."

Overall, NBA Global Games will feature 12 NBA teams playing 10 regular-season and preseason games in 10 cities in seven countries and territories, marking the most NBA teams to play internationally in a single season in league history.