World of Weibo

Kobe, in memoriam

Over a million Chinese netizens pay tribute to deceased NBA star

The impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump have struggled to hog the news headlines this week, as the international media focused more on Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak.

But news of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant on Sunday did – temporarily – push some of the news about the epidemic further down the page.

When Chinese social media users woke up to reports of the National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar’s death, many initially thought it was just another item of fake news. Sadly it was not and revelations about the 41 year-old’s shocking helicopter crash in California, which claimed nine lives including that of Bryant’s teenage daughter, soon became a top news story in China, as well as one of the most-searched items on social media.

Within hours, the hashtag “Kobe died” had been viewed more than 1.2 billion times on Sina Weibo. There were more than a million posts from netizens too, as well as tributes from Chinese celebrities and sports stars.

“We both suffered a fractured finger. I rested for a month and a half, and you did not even take a single day off. I learned from you what persistence meant,” wrote Yi Jianlian, captain of the Chinese national basketball team, who spent six years in the NBA before returning to play in China in 2012.

On his final post last Friday, Bryant had posted Chinese New Year greetings to his more than nine local million fans, which made him one of the most followed foreigners on weibo.

“It is 4.30am Lao Da [a Chinese slang for ‘big brother’]. Time to wake up and practice,” a fan commented on what would turn out to be Bryant’s farewell message to his Chinese fanbase. The remark was a tribute to the basketball superstar’s legendary work ethic and his famous quote – “Have you ever seen LA at 4am?” (Bryant was said to be a very early starter at the gym).

After playing for 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant retired in 2016. He is arguably the second most popular basketball star in China after Yao Ming (although some would say Bryant takes top spot). China’s NBA viewership exploded after Yao joined the Houston Rockets in the early 2000s, which happened to be also when Bryant was in his prime too. Since the NBA began tracking international apparel sales in 2005, Bryant’s jersey was the top seller every year until his retirement. His venture capital fund Bryant Stibel also invested in a number of Chinese firms, including internet giant Alibaba and online education provider VIPKID (see WiC378).

He remains the NBA’s fourth highest scorer of all time and it will be difficult for others to repeat his popularity in China, especially as the league has run into political controversies over the past few months (see WiC470). Yao Ming, now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, has yet to make an official comment on Bryant’s tragic death.

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