Kobe has his own reality show on Chinese television. His own Web site in Chinese. He does a ton of television commercials there. During last year’s Olympics, Team USA was treated as rock stars, but Kobe was the undeniable king. Kobe was the Bono to LeBron James’ Billie Joe Armstrong.
Kobe sells more jerseys in China than Yao Ming and considerably more than LeBron James. Kobe is the global icon right now.
The reason is simple — just like on the court, Kobe gets what it takes to win in a way LeBron is just learning. Kobe knows how to build a team around him and bring them up. He studies what to do then follows through. And he wants it more. So he wins.
This July Kobe will make a publicity tour of the world’s most populous country for the fourth straight year, looking to build on that. He also is starting his own charity just for China — the Kobe Bryant China Fund. But that’s just the next step.
On Tuesday in Los Angeles, the love affair will reach a new level. Not only is Mr. Bryant accepting an award from the Asia Society for his work as a “cultural ambassador,” the ceremony will be attended by Liu Peng, China’s “Minister of Sport” and a member of China’s Communist Party Central Committee.
China’s embrace is largely an appreciation of Mr. Bryant’s basketball talent—he won his fourth NBA title earlier this month with the Los Angeles Lakers. “He reminds everyone of Michael Jordan,” says Shen Zhiyu, a senior basketball writer for Titan Sports, China’s largest sports daily.
In Kobe Bryant’s world — especially post Colorado — nothing happens by accident. He is focused and driven on the court and off. And this China campaign is part of it.
Kobe wanted to be big in China, he wanted it worse than LeBron did and he set out to make that happen. And while Kobe’s image in the United States is seen as polarizing, that is far from the case in China.
Mr. Bryant’s public image is not spotless. He has squabbled publicly with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal and drawn fire for his tactics in contract talks. In 2003, authorities in Colorado charged him with sexual assault. Mr. Bryant admitted having sex with his accuser but insisted it was consensual. The case was dismissed after his accuser declined to testify against him. A civil suit was settled out of court.
In China, none of that seems to matter. Terry Rhoads, the American managing director of Zou Marketing, a Shanghai sports consultancy who steered Nike’s entry into China, says Mr. Bryant seems to have a solid sense of how to navigate in the country. “Chinese fans adore Kobe on the court, but they also want to see affection for Chinese culture and people,” Mr. Rhoads says. “The more time he spends in China, the more he will endear himself to millions of basketball-loving Chinese.”
And everywhere Kobe goes, Nike goes. The iconic shoe company wants to dominate China the way it does the US marketplace. And Kobe is at the heart of that.
But Kobe knew that going in. He wanted it, and he got it.