Kobe Bryant's presence remains strong in China
The moment Kobe Bryant entered the gym, the cheers and screams permeated the room.
The moment Bryant exchanged high fives, "M-V-P" chants bounced off the walls.
The moment Bryant left the building, fans clamored to touch him and ask him for autographs.
Sounds like your typical night at a Lakers' game at Staples Center. Except it wasn't.
Bryant entered the gym at Gertz-Ressler High School Thursday where he oversaw a Mandarin exchange program partnered with the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Foundation and with After-School All-Stars, an event that featured Chinese exchange students participating Thursday in defensive, shooting and dribbling drills.
The enthusiastic response obviously highlights the popularity the Lakers' star commands. During the event, students presented him with a pair of Nike shoes and a scroll written in Chinese caligraphy. But the reception also represents how Bryant's made significant inroads in China.
"It's given tremendous inspiration and hope to a lot of players," Bryant said. "The questions that I get a lot when I'm over there is what is it going to take for an Asian basketball player to really emerge and be one of the premier players in the league. I say, all it takes is hard work. For years, they thought there was some secret formula going on. No, you just practice and you combine that with God-given talent. I think it does nothing but gives it a good jolt and helps kids believe they can come to the NBA and make a significant impact."
New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has taken the Big Apple by storm, not only for his stellar point guard play, but becoming the first American-born NBA player of Taiwanese descent and the first Harvard product to play in the NBA since 1954. Former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming also served as a "bridge between Chinese and American fans," according to NBA Commissioner David Stern, after posting career averages of 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds and climbing up to sixth place on the Rockets' all-time scoring list in points (9,247) and rebounds (4,494). But Bryant's presence alone also makes a significant difference.
That starts with his philanthropic efforts.
Bryant's program involves 10 Chinese students going on a five-day cultural exchange program in the U.S. where they visit various L.A. landmarks, interact with students across 37 schools in L.A. county and learn the ancient martial art of Wu Shu, considered the most popular sport in China. The Kobe Bryant China partnered two years ago with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, a charity backed by the Chinese government, to raise money within China earmarked for education and health programs.
"You want to do whatever you can with the platform that you have," Bryant said, "to try to enhance it and bring awareness to some of those causes."
It involves his branding.
Bryant has spent recent summers in China promoting his Nike shoes. He's filmed a commercial touting Smart Car China. Bryant appeared in a Sprite commercial and music video featuring Asian pop singer Jay Chou. Bryant even has his own reality show in China. In four of the past five seasons, Bryant's jersey sought the most demand. After first hosting a clinic in 1999, Bryant routinely returned there only to find his popularity peak during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"I had a great time over there," Bryant said.
It involves how China and Bryant equally embrace each other.
Two years ago, Bryant accepted an award from the Asia Society for his work as a "cultural ambassador." Before the Lakers' 111-99 victory Friday over the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa invited Chinese vice president Xi Jinping to the game because "he's a Kobe fan." In turn, Bryant met plenty of his security officials and predicted he would meet China's likely future president soon. Bryant, who grew up in Italy and speaks Italian and Spanish, noticed the many fans in China view competition and work ethic in the same vein Bryant plays basketball. And during the NBA lockout, Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka told The Times this summer that Bryant considered launching a barnstorming tour through China.
It's safe to presume that connection Bryant's forged with China will remain strong.
"They welcomed me with open arms," Bryant said, "and I've been doing it ever since."
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