A huge portrait of Lakers star Kobe Bryant, rendered in snow, appeared on an outdoor basketball court at Beihua University in northern China's Jilin province on Sunday, with the words "Forever 24" – Bryant's jersey number -- at the bottom.
It was the latest commemorative gesture from Chinese fans for the NBA superstar, who announced late last month that he plans to retire after this season. Bryant is far and away the most popular NBA player in China, and often received god-like treatment whenever he visited the country.
Wei Xudong, a sophomore majoring in sculpturing at Beihua University, said he and some classmates were looking for an idea for their next art project when he read the letter from Bryant announcing his retirement.
"I must do something for Kobe," said Wei. "I always thought he had not decided on retiring from the NBA, maybe he'll play one more season. Now I know this is the last season I can see him play."
Wei, 21, said he "became a huge fan of Kobe because he was such a great shooter."
"His shooting form was always so handsome and cool," he said. "Most of his moves were too hard for me to imitate, but I tried to learn to shoot the basketball like him."
When he was in high school, Wei spent over $150 on a pair of Nike sneakers like the ones Bryant wears and collected all kinds of posters. Since starting college two years ago, he has played basketball almost every day from 5 until 9 p.m., weather permitting.
Wei and his classmates completed a snow portrait of Bruce Lee on an outdoor basketball court a week ago. Wei said that when he learned about Bryant's retirement, "I started to look for different pictures of Kobe online. I wanted to find a good picture of what Kobe looks like today, not when he was younger, because this is for commemorating the Kobe we see today is retiring."
After selecting a picture, the art students printed it out and drew 20 vertical and horizontal lines on it, said Wei Ting, 19.
"We drew corresponding lines on the basketball court to make sure each part of the picture was properly rendered," she said. "Luckily, there's a tall building overlooking the basketball court, so we could have someone standing there to observe and help us correct any mistakes. And we added the words 'Forever 24' at the bottom ourselves."
It took the group of eight students and a teacher four hours Sunday morning to complete the portrait. A local TV station even sent in a drone camera to record the whole process.
When Bryant posted a link to his "Dear Basketball" letter on his Weibo social media account, the post was reposted over 147,000 times and received over 30,000 supportive comments.
"Thank you China for all your messages. Your support today has been amazing," Bryant responded to Chinese fans in a subsequent post.
Although Bryant weathered numerous controversies in his career -- including feuding with teammate Shaquille O'Neal, tension with coach Phil Jackson and facing sexual assault charges that were later dropped -- he maintained consistent appeal for over a decade in China.
His immense popularity had a lot of do with when his career peak occurred, veteran Chinese sports writers say.
"Many Chinese fans didn't really get a chance to watch Michael Jordan play because NBA games were rarely shown on Chinese TV at the time," said Feng Xiao, who has covered the NBA for over 10 years in China. "Kobe Bryant dominated the NBA in the next decade following Jordan's retirement, which was also when NBA TV broadcasting started to pick up here."
The controversies surrounding Bryant in the early days of his career didn't really reach Chinese fans because the coverage of NBA news in the Chinese press was still in its infancy at the time, and social media was essentially nonexistent, Feng said.
"That's why, to many Chinese fans, Kobe was almost like a god," Feng said. "People can connect to him spiritually because of the kind of determination he showed on the court. He was more than just a basketball superstar."
Feng said he thinks that it's harder for NBA stars today to duplicate the kind of success Bryant has enjoyed in China simply because fans now have access to information about any NBA star they adore. "Some fans can just say I just love Lebron James, while others can say I'm only into Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry," Feng said.
Wei, the art student, said that after Bryant retires his favorite NBA player who is still playing in the league would probably be Curry, because the Warriors star also has tremendous shooting skills.
As much as he hates to see his idol leave the game, Wei said he's aware of the toll on Bryant's body after 20 years of pounding in a league as physical as the NBA.
"I must admit, it's painful to see Kobe play this season sometimes," said Wei. "He does look older on the court."
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.