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Why Chinese Fans Loved Kobe Bryant So Much

Kobe Bryant was mobbed by Chinese fans during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He remains a hugely popular star both in China and among the nation's expats. (Filippo Monteforte/ AFP via Getty Images)
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Jiayi Liu left her apartment near USC, bought a bouquet of white chrysanthemums at a grocery store, and drove to the Staples Center.

It's where fans of the late Lakers legend Kobe Bryant have been gathering to mourn since Sunday, when Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.

Liu, 24, was heading to Staples Center on Monday as a favor for a close friend in China, a fan who'd called her across time zones and asked if she could please lay flowers there in his stead.

Growing up in China, Liu said, many of her peers were Kobe fans.

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"When I was in middle school, my classmates were often talking about him," she said. "And they would imitate his moves of playing basketball. They have really liked Kobe for many years."

Bryant's death has hit hard among his Chinese fans, both in L.A. and across the Pacific. Kobe was reknowned in China for his determination, underscored by a popular anecdote.

Here's the widely shared story: A reporter asked the basketball star why he was so successful. Kobe replied: "Have you ever seen Los Angeles at 4 a.m.?" That cemented his work ethic in the minds of his Chinese followers.


Flowers and a note in English and Mandarin left outside Staples Center at the request Runqiu Huang (Yingjie Wang / LAist)

The bad news broke just two days after the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Speaking by phone from Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, Liu's friend Runqiu Huang, 25, said the last few days have been especially difficult. Bryant's death came at the same time the country has been struggling with the coronavirus panic.

"It's the worst new year's," said Huang, who shut himself in his room and cried after hearing that his basketball idol was gone.

In Los Angeles, Weidong Wang, a 26-year-old USC student majoring in East Asian Area Studies, said Bryant and the Lakers team gave him his first impression of what America might be like.

"Kobe might never know that he inspired a little boy living in a remote area surrounded by mountains to pursue his dream," Wang said. "He is my reason for coming to the U.S., to Los Angeles."

Wang was in a local shopping mall with a classmate when he heard the news. He said his head went blank, then he went to a staircase where there were no people around, grasped the handrail and broke out in tears.

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Zihan Rui, 25, a Chinese national first-class basketball player, said Kobe inspired him to play professionally. He recently graduated from USC and now lives in Jiangsu, China.

Speaking by phone, Rui recalled trying to imitate Kobe's moves when he was practicing basketball as a child. He thought Kobe was fearless, and it was this spirit that inspired him when playing tough opponents.

Images of Kobe Bryant adorn the walls of Xinchi Zhang's childhood bedroom in Beijing. (Courtesy of Xinchi Zhang)

"I went to USC because it's close to Staples Center and close to Kobe," Rui said. "I knew he was retired already, but the feeling of being so close to him was so good!"

Another USC student, Xinchi Zhang, 24, felt the same way. He couldn't believe the news Sunday. He checked, double-checked, triple-checked until he saw all mainstream media were posting it.

Zhang became a Kobe fan when he was in elementary school in Beijing. Playing basketball then, he was deeply impressed by Kobe's elegant moves, which he described as similar to a "Chinese swordsman."

"It is probably the reason why he won over many Chinese fans," Zhang said.

Zhang carefully cut Kobe's image out from sports magazines and posted them on the walls of his childhood bedroom. With subtle humor, Zhang said at least it wasn't that difficult to clip around his idol's shaved silhouette. "Thank God he didn't have any hair," he said.

Zhang said that when his mom repainted the house in China recently, she left his walls -- with his Kobe art -- intact.


Zijia Wang, 35, a Chinese actor who lives in Chino Hills, became a Kobe Bryant fan when he was around 14. Since then, Kobe and the Lakers have always been an important part of his life.

"Kobe was the only reason I started to watch basketball games," said Wang, who grew up in Beijing watching Kobe play as a rising NBA star. "Watching him play is like watching acrobatics, his moves are so technical and pretty."

Wang was visiting family in China and had been up late when he heard the news. "I couldn't fall asleep the whole night," he said. "Kobe's death marked the end of an era."

Jiayi Liu lays flowers outside the Staples Center. (Yingjie Wang/LAist)

Back at the Staples Center, Jiayi Liu placed her bouquet of white mums on the ground, along the piles of flowers and purple-and-gold Lakers jerseys. She snapped a few photos and sent them to Runqui Huang, her friend in China. It was late at night in China, but she heard back from him right away.

He'd been up crying, Huang told Liu, but seeing the flowers, the L.A. sunshine and the outpouring of love from fellow Kobe fans an ocean away made him feel better.