Chinese television blacked out the league’s opening games after an executive’s support of the Hong Kong protests. Has time healed the rift?
For someone who was raised in Italy, came of age in Philadelphia, and ultimately established himself as a star in southern California, it is telling that Kobe Bryant once referred to China as his “home away from home.” Bryant first visited the country in 1998 to host a basketball camp, a year after he entered the NBA straight out of high school. The trips would become a fixture of Bryant’s offseason during his 20-year career. There he was, wowing fans with slam dunks on the Great Wall. And there he was, getting mobbed at airports in scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania. “I thought I was famous,” remarked LeBron James at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “until I got here with Kobe.”
Bryant had the best-selling sports jersey in China for years, and by the time he retired in 2016, he was far and away the country’s most popular athlete. A reported 110 million people tuned in to Tencent, the NBA’s digital streaming partner in China, to watch Bryant’s last game for the Lakers. “It’s harder for me to walk around here than in the States,” Bryant said during a 2013 visit. “In the States, you get a lot of recognition. They say, ‘Hi.’ They want autographs and pictures. But here, it’s uncontrollable. They rush you and surround you to the point where you can’t go out.” Bryant’s shocking death last month prompted a similar mass outpouring on Weibo, essentially China’s version of Twitter, where he had posted a video message commemorating Chinese New Year to his nine million followers just two days before his helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California.