It’s Kobe’s team, in China, anyway.
The U.S. basketball team, entirely made up of superstars, isn’t really anyone’s, but one of them -- Kobe Bryant -- stands alone, at least as far as 1.3 billion Chinese are concerned.
If LeBron James is still King James in the U.S., Bryant is the new emperor of China.
Bryant gets the loudest cheers in pregame introductions. Fans chant “MVP!” when he’s at the free-throw line. Late in Saturday’s rout of Spain as he sat on the bench, they started chanting, “Kobe! Kobe!”
As teammate Carmelo Anthony joked, “Kobe might want to think about moving here -- to live.”
On this, his fifth trip to China, he’s protected by the U.S. team’s security people, several of whom were hired off the Lakers staff.
On past trips, where every place he went hadn’t already been secured as they have been here, he would have needed the People’s Liberation Army.
“Oh, they’ve broken through security before,” Bryant says. “I’ve lost earrings, chains and all kinds of stuff. This time I tuck ‘em in when I go into crowds.
“Last year when I came here, I lost an earring. . . . A kid found it on the floor and held on to it for three hours and came back and gave it back to me. That’s crazy.”
It got crazier than that. Once Bryant landed in a private jet at a Chinese airport, where a large crowd was waiting, but he was told to stay on the plane.
It turned out the general who ran the airport was waiting for his son to arrive to get an autograph.
If everything has turned around for Bryant, it was never so clear until this trip.
At home, he was always overshadowed by Shaquille O’Neal before he hurtled from grace after his 2003 arrest.
In China, however, Bryant’s career dovetailed with the rise of interest in the NBA, and the perception was different. He wasn’t just the child star they saw on TV winning three titles. As hard-driving in business as basketball, he was also the one they saw in person on promotional tours.
Says U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski: “Kobe has a relationship with the Chinese fans.”
LeBron James got the greatest buildup in history, but coverage here centered on games. If James was fresh, young and brimming with “street cred,” it didn’t match Bryant’s exploits in the playoffs and his 81-point game.
For Bryant, it’s the latest thing to go right in a commercial comeback like none before.
It used to be axiomatic in advertising that no one paid for mixed messages. If you lost commercial cachet, it was gone forever.
Bryant was dropped by all his partners except Nike -- and it didn’t bring out a shoe with his name on it for two years. Now here he is, the reigning MVP, closing in on a gold medal, the most beloved Western figure in the greatest market of them all.
His jersey outsells all others in China, including that of Yao Ming, who is only No. 6, possibly because Chinese fans already have a closet full of his.
Bryant just re-signed with Nike. A year ago he got a Sony Playstation deal James had been in the running for.
“The marketing world has never seen anything like Kobe,” says CNBC sports marketing expert Darren Rovell. “Deals with Coke, Nutella, McDonald’s and Spalding expired, [but] a Coke brand -- Vitamin Water -- took him back.
“In the next year Kobe will sign a deal with a blue-chip company that will prove he’s back near the top of the athlete endorsement world.”
Of all the U.S. Olympic teams, only Bill Russell’s in Melbourne in 1956 was dominated by a single player.
Still, Bryant’s impact is undeniable.
Without him, Greece sliced and diced the young American players in 2006. With him, they look like the second coming of the gung-ho team Bob Knight lashed to greatness in 1984.
If Krzyzewski had to overcome the ego issue when Bryant joined up last summer, no one else had come in asking if he could concentrate on defense.
“Yeah, he surprised me,” said Krzyzewski, adding, “I just wanted him to be a player, a great player, which he is.
“We knew he could defend real well, [but] he can’t do all that for 110 straight games [in the NBA] and still be asked to score 30 points. But in this he could. . . .
“That’s been a huge plus for us to buy in defensively, by him and LeBron. When your two best players buy into the concept of defense, that helps you a lot.”
Bryant watched the loss to Greece -- which aired at 3 a.m. as point guard Vassilis Spanoulis bedeviled the U.S. on pick-and-rolls and decided then and there what this team needed.
“I felt like that’s what we were kind of missing as far as European guards, big guards, tearing us up a little bit,” Bryant said. “And I was sick and tired of hearing about their guard play.
“I wanted to come in and say, ‘You know what, I don’t have to score 30-some points and do dunks, all that stuff, I want to come in and lock some people up.’ ”
He’s still our Kobe. If any U.S. player forces a shot, it’s usually him. He’s just so used to taking difficult shots, he thinks they’re routine.
For him, the difficult was always commonplace. As no one with as much going could have gotten in so much trouble, no one else could have gotten out of it.
Now the skies are clear. As he said after Monday’s win over Germany, “Everything is going perfectly.”
His own team is soaring. He goes to two or three events a day, from Michael Phelps’ races to Brazil and Argentina in soccer.
This isn’t his team, but it could be his time. If it’s morning for him in China as well as Lakerdom, his future’s so bright he has to wear shades.