As a middle school student, Shen Yuqi started to follow the NBA largely because of Chinese superstar Yao Ming, a 7-foot, 6-inch phenom who caught her attention during the 2006-07 season.
Shen, like many basketball fans growing up China, soon found out the league was filled with dynamic players. She picked a new favorite star — No. 24 of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the first NBA game she watched on television, the Rockets were playing the Lakers.
“The Lakers player wearing No. 24 caught my attention right away, because he was taking on all five players from the other team by himself!” Shen, a now-27-year-old elementary school teacher, said in a telephone conversation from Suzhou in eastern China. “He tried to do everything on the court and it worked! And he was also very handsome!”
Instead of following Yao and the Rockets, Shen became a loyal fan of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Like so many others, Shen was devastated by the helicopter accident that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in Calabasas on Sunday. Her smartphone had kept buzzing with messages from different friends, all trying to comfort her, with words such as ”Please hold on!”
China is a huge market for the NBA, with hundreds of millions of fans among its population of 1.4 billion. Bryant, who retired from the league after the 2015-16 season, was one of the most popular stars with a loyal fan base in China.
From high school through her college years, Shen’s social media activity included dedicating at least one hour each day collecting and translating the daily game reports about Bryant and the Lakers, as well as the Laker star’s off-court activities.
“I wasn’t getting paid for the content I translated, but I was just happy to be able to share all the interesting stories about Kobe with fellow fans in China,” she said.
For older Chinese basketball fans, Bryant’s popularity took off at a time when the NBA was looking for the next brightest star following the second retirement of Michael Jordan in 1999, Chinese sports reporters said.
“As basketball fans, we definitely worshiped the championship teams and their stars,” Huang Yi, head of the basketball channel operated by Chinese internet giant Tencent, said in a phone interview from Beijing.
After watching Bryant play in person during a warm-up game in Shanghai before the 2008 Olympics, Shen tried to catch every opportunity to see her idol whenever the Laker star traveled to China during the off-season.
When Bryant announced his plans to retire after the 2015-16 NBA season, Shen thought she had to travel to Los Angeles to watch her favorite star play in a regular season game before it was too late. Despite the fact that she only began to work about six months before, Shen saved as much as she could to travel to Los Angeles in January 2016 and watched three Lakers games.
“I was really excited to watch Kobe play in a regular season game. He was not 100% healthy during that season. But I was really happy that he scored a season high and hit the game winner in one of the games I attended,” she said.
In addition to admiring Byrant’s skills on the basketball court, Shen began to appreciate him as a person.
“There were always opposing views about Kobe, but he never really responded to the criticism or made an explanation. For me, he was simply a very nice person. What was appealing to me about Kobe was that he just did what he thought was necessary without making excuses,” she said.
Slowly, Shen started to adopt Bryant’s attitude in her daily life.
“When I was a child, I never had big ambitions about anything. But after following Kobe’s every move so closely through the years, I learned how to handle different tasks, especially assignments at work, with the same kind of persistence,” she said.
Bryant became the source of the inspiration for Shen whenever she faced adversities.
“Whenever I had to deal with something that I had to grind my teeth to complete, his face would appear in my mind and remind me to give my 100%. It worked like a charm every time. Maybe that’s what they call the ‘Mamba mentality,’” she said, a reference to Bryant’s nickname.
After retiring from the NBA in 2016, Bryant launched a number of projects to explore a new career away from his role as a professional player. He released several books and an Academy Award-winning animated short film called “Dear Basketball.”
Thanks to his massive popularity in China, Bryant looked to be on track to develop a promising career in the Chinese market.
“As a content creator, Kobe had a grand plan to release a series of novels, TV shows, movies and animated films. Some of the content has already been released in the United States. But in China, we only released Kobe’s first two books so far,” said Huang, who translated Bryant’s book “The Mamba Mentality” into Chinese. “We’re still looking for the right platforms to introduce Kobe’s other projects to the Chinese market.”
After unveiling Byrant’s new book, “Training Camp,” in the Chinese market in an event called “Black Mamba Night” last September, Huang said Tencent was in discussion with Bryant’s representatives about a similar event this year.
“Once his family and the current situation settle down a bit, maybe they’ll have new plans,” Huang said. “No matter what their plans are, I’m willing to work with them.”
Yang is a special correspondent.