Chinese basketball star Yao Ming posted a picture on Instagram in June. There was Ming, an All-Star who played with the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011, standing on the left and Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion holding a trophy and talking into a microphone, on the right.
“When Kobe Bryant talks,” Ming wrote. “People listen.”
That was seven months before Bryant died in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter and seven other passengers. The basketball legend’s sudden death prompted an outpouring of tributes from fans in Southern California, where he played for 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers and will be honored with a memorial on February 24, and around the country.
But some of his largest tributes have come from the Asian community around the world where people saw Bryant as more than an athlete. Many talked about a person who understood and respected their culture and connected them with the basketball community.
In the Philippines, for example, a basketball hall named The House of Kobe in Bryant’s honor opened up just hours before his death. When news of the crash spread to Manila, artists took to the renowned Tenement basketball court, where they painted a now viral tribute of Kobe hugging his daughter, Gianna. Bryant had visited the Philippines multiple times over the course of his career.
Bryant visited not only the Philippines, but also India, South Korea, and China. He even called China, which he first visited in 1998 to host a basketball clinic, a second home.
“For an NBA superstar, to travel to our home countries and really appreciate the community, it opened our eyes,” Mark Lee, a Korean American businessman in New York, said. “Asians aren’t as good as European or American players. But for him to go to a continent that’s not really good in basketball, that passion really touched every single Asian out there.”
In 2017, the year after Bryant retired, Mailman, a digital sports marketing company in China, found that shirt and jersey sales with Bryant’s number led in China for six of the last 10 years. And ESPN and their Chinese partner Tencent reported that 110 million people tuned in to watch his final game.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, LeBron James, Bryant’s teammate who now plays for the Lakers, told reporters that he thought he was famous–until he got to China with Kobe. James said fans surrounded Team USA’s bus and chanted Kobe’s name until the team made it through the security gates.
After his death, The People’s Daily in China, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, published a photo of Bryant. “That fighting spirit that knows no fear of wind or rain is something worth remembering, whether in basketball or life,” the paper said.
Bryant’s “mamba” mentality–the spirit and work ethic he brought on and off the courts similar to what Asian parents espoused growing up, said Thomas Cui, a basketball fan who grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Boston. He sees parallels, he said, between Bryant’s path from a bench player to an all-star and his parents’ path from Shanghai to the United States. The Black Mamba, as Bryant nicknamed himself, joined the Lakers in 1996. In his first two seasons, he started just eight games.
When he was younger, Cui and his older brother, streamed Lakers games in New York. They saw Kobe and the Lakers take on the Utah Jazz in 1997 for a spot in the Western Conference Championships. In a tight elimination game, Bryant went up for a shot. He airballed it. Kobe airballed another one. Then two more, and the Lakers ended up losing in overtime 98-93.
Cui still chose Kobe as his favorite player.
“He became that underdog,” said Cui, who played basketball through high school and for two years at Baruch college. “But it seemed like he knew what his end goal was and he had the work ethic to get there and it resonated with me.”
That work ethic, which spanned different cultures and countries, also transcended generations and fan bases all over the world, obviously, not just in Asia. Even those that weren’t necessarily fans of Bryant were touched by his death.
Joe Asad, a Brooklyn native, says he isn’t a Lakers fan or a Kobe fan—he loves the San Antonio Spurs, but he said he felt Kobe’s death deeply. On January 26, Asad said he was on the D train, heading to Bryant Park, when his friend texted him that the basketball giant had passed away. During dinner, he said, no one ate. They were all on their phones reading about Kobe Bryant.
Asad, a teacher and basketball coach at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, helped one of his classes make posters with Kobe Bryant quotes the next day. It was a way for the junior and senior students, he said, many of whom idolized Kobe and had his picture on their phones to process the loss of a basketball icon.
“Pain doesn’t tell you when you ought to stop. Pain is the little voice in your head that tries to hold you back because it knows if you continue you will change,” one poster read.“The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win,” read another.
For years, Asad said, every time he crumpled up a piece of paper and lobbed it towards the trashcan or shot a pair of socks into the laundry hamper, he would yell Kobe’s name. He’ll still do that, he said. And if he missed, he said, he would just shoot it again–like Kobe.