<
>

No doubt: Kobe's No. 1 in China

He might be No. 11 in ESPN's World Fame Top 100, but Kobe Bryant is No. 1 in China. ESPN Illustration

In the ESPN World Fame 100, soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ranked Nos. 1 and 3, while LeBron James ranked No. 2 and Kevin Durant ranked No. 6. It's not surprising because soccer and the NBA are among the most popular sports in China and the world.

Yet for fans in China, none of those four tops the list. Rather, Kobe Bryant, who came in at No. 11 in the overall fame rankings, sits at No. 1, totally unshakable. Yes, the "Black Mamba" is the most popular athlete in China.

He has had the best-selling sports jersey in China for five years (2007-2010, 2012) since the NBA first released jersey sales rankings for China in 2005. And his career finale attracted more than 110 million people on Tencent, the exclusive digital partner of the NBA and ESPN in China.

Hundreds of loyal fans wait for him at airports, outside hotels and on every basketball court Bryant goes to during his routine summer visits to China.

But just how has Bryant elevated himself to such iconic status in China?

"I thought I was famous until I got [to China] with Kobe."

LeBron James before the Beijing Olympics in 2008

A graceful playing style

Besides Bryant's certain Hall of Fame career, his experience of living in Italy and his ability to speak Italian adds a glimmer of panache and international style, more than your average NBA player. Off the court, Bryant displays a unique fashion sense, whether dressed in formal or casual ways. The man has global appeal, and Chinese fans love it.

But what's more attractive to Chinese fans is Bryant's playing style. His elegant fadeaway jumpers, graceful reverse layups and dunks all separate him from LeBron's athleticism and violent physicality. It is akin to Chinese martial arts versus boxing. It's grace vs. power, which attracts Chinese fans to Kobe more than LeBron. And Chinese fans find it much easier to imitate and emulate Kobe's moves.

A hero in the age of missing heroes

Bryant is feted in China just as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and the Beatles once were in America.

"I thought I was famous until I got here with Kobe," said LeBron James before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Two events in the NBA led to Bryant's emergence in China. The first was the retirement of Michael Jordan. The second was Yao Ming's rise to stardom in the NBA.

After Jordan's last shot in 1998 -- not counting his swan song with the Wizards -- fans across the world needed a new hero to worship, and to many, Kobe Bryant was that hero.

Meanwhile, Yao Ming served as the first real basketball ambassador between China and the United States, introducing the game to millions of Chinese fans just as Bryant was hitting his prime. Kobe won three consecutive championships with Shaquille O'Neal just at the time Chinese fans were developing their appetite for the NBA.

The beginning of the 21st century also witnessed the rapid growth of the internet in China, and Bryant enjoyed more exposure than ever, unlike 1980s legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who were not lucky enough to reap the benefits of that technology. And Jordan had barely touched the very beginning of the internet.

A flair for the dramatic

Throughout his career, Bryant has had a flair for the dramatic. He challenged Jordan's authority as a rookie. He broke up with two great centers (Shaq and Dwight Howard). And his personal indiscretions in Colorado and subsequent public shaming are well-documented. Yet these tribulations have humanized Bryant in the eyes of many Chinese fans. He seems more true to life instead of a well-decorated idol.

Bryant's most loyal fans belong to the post-'80s generation. And China is no exception. In China, the post-'80s generation is often characterized as pursuing freedom and sometimes rebels against set rules. Bryant embodies the creed "It's me against the world."

Chinese fans love a hero such as Kobe who can change the world single-handedly, not LeBron and Dwyane Wade, who chose to team for a championship. Among his five rings, Bryant's last two championships -- which he won without O'Neal -- seemed to prove his alpha male mentality and rugged individuality. And his 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006, elevated him to another echelon in China.

Active ambassador to Chinese fans

While he lives in Los Angeles, Bryant once said, "China is home away from home."

Bryant first visited China in 1998 to host a basketball camp. Three years later, he climbed the Great Wall and performed a slam dunk on it. Since 2006, Bryant has gone on a promotional tour every year, even in 2013 after suffering a torn Achilles.

To be sure, Bryant is not the only foreign player who visits to China. However, he has been the best in terms of giving back to his Chinese fans. In 2009, Bryant created the Kobe Bryant China Fund and donated 5 million yuan -- approximately $700,000 -- to Sichuan Province, which was rocked by a devastating earthquake.

And just last June, Bryant attended the news conference for his documentary "Kobe Bryant's Muse" in Shanghai. Bryant even made an exclusive commercial during which he gave a speech to his Chinese fans about how they shouldn't love him for being a decorated champion, but instead hate him for the way he pushed them to strive for greatness.