BEIJING — Turn on the TV, and there’s a commercial for a car.
There’s also a damsel in distress, a woman who stops the car and jumps into the passenger seat while screaming about an apparent heist.
The vehicle, which turns out to be the pocket-sized Smart car, zooms away in pursuit of a man sprinting through city streets with a painting, presumably priceless. The denouement comes when the driver throws the car into reverse, screeches backward down a narrow alley and hurls a basketball at the perpetrator, knocking him off a fence and saving the day.
Kobe Bryant, hero to the Chinese.
His popularity started with summer camps Bryant hosted here in the late 1990s, before NBA championships and Finals MVPs and “Ko-be, Ko-be” chants started collecting at his feet.
No one has ever equated China with basketball titans (except for Yao Ming) but Bryant related to his campers’ curiosity and called their basketball prowess “fun to be around.
“It’s like teaching the game to people who really want to learn. Because of it, I just started coming back,” Bryant said this week. “There were no print ads, there were no billboards, there was nothing going on. It wasn’t what it is now. I just came out because I enjoyed it.”
It wasn’t long before Nike and Bryant realized the economic potential of an emerging country of 1.3 billion and became banded at the waist on his annual summer trips.
The NBA, always willing to gather another country into its TV-watching empire, jumped into the pool by organizing annual exhibition games in China, fueled in part by Yao’s rise. The Lakers and Golden State Warriors are the most recent edition, playing in Beijing and Shanghai this week.
But Bryant has been the one adored year after year. There’s even a joke in NBA circles that his jersey sales in China dipped to third last season behind Derrick Rose and LeBron James because everybody already had one of Bryant’s.
“He has come to this country quite often and understands what it is to cultivate a fan base which totally understands, shall I say, the heart of a champion,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said.
They’ll even skip school for him.
Liu Yanting, a student at Shandong University of Finance, displayed on her neck a temporary tattoo of Bryant’s face when she attended the Lakers’ exhibition Tuesday in Beijing. Never mind that Bryant couldn’t play because of a torn Achilles’ tendon.
“He never gives up and keeps fighting no matter what adversity he was facing. And he always makes it through. That inspired me a lot when I face similar situations in life,” said Liu, who painted “Kobe” in red block letters on her left cheek. “I do feel it’s a pity that I won’t be able to see him play. I skipped my classes today to come to Beijing to watch this game. But I think it’s still worth it.”
Bryant, dressed in a dark suit, sat on the Lakers bench, but he was shown on the scoreboard at least a dozen times during the sold-out game, all of which led to raucous cheering. No one even cared that the Lakers lost.
When Bryant is here for his Nike summer promotional tour, security teams follow him everywhere, “dummy” vans are used to fool people as to which one he is in, and he sometimes uses freight elevators to get in and out of hotels.
“Chaos is the perfect word for it,” said Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, who traveled with Bryant through China for two weeks last July.
“He does events from 7 a.m., morning to night. Event to event to event. Some of them are planned out, and the numbers are ridiculous. There would be 15,000 people on the street outside of a Nike store. We couldn’t even drive the van through. They’d have riot police, guards just keeping them back. People were trying to push through.”
At one event, a handful of contest winners were allowed to make gifts for Bryant ahead of time that were as intricate as hand-carved nunchucks inscribed with his name.
“They would give them to him, and I saw multiple people in those instances just drop. They were overcome with emotion,” DiFrancesco said. “They just didn’t know what to do other than go into hysterical sobbing and tears. You kind of think of that when you think of people in the presence of the pope. It was unbelievable to see that.”
Bryant says he’s recognized more here than anywhere in the U.S. Security personnel who work in China compare his arrival to that of the Rolling Stones. In addition to Smart cars, he is plastered on Chinese billboards for Lenovo electronics.
Yao, the undisputed king of Chinese basketball, came up with a different reason for Bryant’s appeal. “He’s handsome,” Yao said. “That helps.”
Bryant has his own theory for his popularity in China.
“If you go back to the States, fans have gone through this progression of hero marketing. They kind of lived through that in the ‘80s with Michael [Jordan] and Magic [Johnson] and having the fanaticism of fans,” Bryant said. “With so many [U.S.] media outlets, I think it’s evolved to something beyond that, where we’re a little bit more desensitized by celebrities.
“Out here, not so much. It’s something that’s kind of relatively new.”
Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.