Eight reasons why Kobe Bryant is a rock star in China

April 12, 2016, 8:13 AM

— -- The illustrious career of Kobe Bryant is coming to an end.

The Los Angeles Lakers' superstar guard revealed in November that this NBA season would be his last. Now, the ultimate game in his basketball journey will be staged Wednesday, when the Utah Jazz visit Staples Center.

But you already knew that.

What many observers in the United States don't know, however, is that the 18-time All-Star's absence from the game will probably be felt just as significantly in China, where he is second only to native son Yao Ming in terms of basketball popularity. Thanks in large part to the emergence of Yao, China's NBA viewership exploded during the early 2000s. Conveniently for Bryant, he was in his prime -- and Michael Jordan was finally retired for good.

Kobe's brand has been aggressively marketed in China, and his rise there was swift. He became China's Jordan, and he has earned a handsome supplemental income because of that status. To wit, here's what LeBron James said before the Beijing Olympics in 2008: "I thought I was famous until I got here with Kobe."

There are myriad reasons why Kobe is a rock star in China. With that in mind, we match Bryant's original jersey number by examining eight connections between Kobe and China:

'Home away from home'

Bryant first visited China to host a basketball clinic in 1998. He returned on a promotional tour for Adidas in 2001. Since then, he has visited China every year from 2006 through 2015 on promotional tours for Nike.

He competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and visited China with the Lakers for two exhibition games against the Golden State Warriors in 2013.

He's scheduled to return to China this summer, and it's no wonder Bryant has referred to that nation as his "home away from home."

Olympic impact

Bryant has played against China once in Olympic competition. He recorded 13 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals in 27 minutes as Team USA defeated China 101-70 in the preliminary round of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yao Ming had 13 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes for China in that game, and afterward, Bryant called the atmosphere "beyond electric."

Team USA went 8-0 at the Beijing Olympics, ultimately defeating Spain 118-107 for the gold medal in a game that was closer than the final score indicates.

Bryant averaged 15 points in 24 minutes per game during the 2008 Olympics; the Americans won by 20 or more points in each of the seven games leading up to the final round.

Twelve years earlier, Kobe played against the 1996 Chinese Olympic team as a 17-year-old at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, California. Future NBA players Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer were on that China roster, which was tuning up for the Atlanta Olympics at the time.

Bryant showed flashes of future brilliance in that game. The compilation of vintage highlights below is seven minutes long, and it's worth watching in its entirety. But you can get a quick fix by skipping to the 5:49 mark, when Bryant makes a behind-the-back pass, gets the ball back and finishes the possession with a nasty dunk.

The Lockout Tour that wasn't

When the NBA was mired in a labor stoppage in August 2011, media in China reported that Bryant had committed to play for the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association -- a move that could've broken the bank and the internet.

Although the story tying Bryant to the Shanxi franchise turned out to be false, Bryant did reportedly consider headlining a barnstorming tour in China. Such a tour could have included fellow clients of Bryant agent Rob Pelinka, such as Derek Fisher, Carlos Boozer and O.J. Mayo.

As it turned out, the lockout was resolved on Dec. 8, and the season began on Christmas Day. The exhibition tour never came to fruition.

Commercial success

Bryant has starred in numerous commercials in China over the past decade. Here are some of our favorites:

This one for Smart Car -- which was clearly filmed on the streets of Los Angeles.

This one and this one for Sprite.

This one and this one for Nike.

Nike also created the following spot to coincide with the end of his career. In the clip, Bryant tells the Chinese audience, "You love me. You love me because I'm Kobe, because I'm a five-time champion, because I'm one of the greatest to step on the court." Then he turns the tables. #HeroVillain

It's gotta be the jerseys

Since the NBA began tracking international apparel sales, Bryant has practically cornered the market in China.

The league first released jersey sales rankings for China in November 2005. The Lakers were coming off a 34-48 season following the departure of star center Shaquille O'Neal and head coach Phil Jackson, and Bryant ranked No. 4 in jersey sales, behind Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and Yao, respectively.

After Bryant won the next two NBA scoring titles, his jersey became the top seller in China for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. He ranked No. 1 again in 2012 before dropping to No. 3 behind Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose and LeBron James in 2013.

Last year, Bryant ranked No. 2 behind Warriors guard Stephen Curry. The NBA didn't announce China's top-selling jersey rankings in 2011 or 2014.

Media mogul

Bryant presided over a six-episode reality show in 2008. It was filmed mostly in California but aired in China prior to the Beijing Olympics. "Kobe Mentu," which translates as "Kobe's Disciples," featured aspiring ballers from across China who trained intensely for two weeks under the tutelage of Bryant. The Lakers star selected the top players, who then participated in a final game in Beijing.

More than 100 media outlets were represented when the Lakers played the Warriors in exhibition games at Beijing and Shanghai in 2013 -- with Bryant serving as the main attraction despite injuries that kept him out of action.

Bryant also has more than 4 million followers on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site.

Giving back to China

In 2009, Bryant created the Kobe Bryant China Fund and donated five million yuan -- approximately $700,000 -- to relief efforts after a devastating earthquake rocked the Sichuan province the previous year. During the filming for "Kobe Mentu," one of the athletes selected for the show, a teenager named Cao Yan, was diagnosed with spina bifida, and Bryant arranged for him to get medical treatment in Los Angeles. Bryant also has facilitated cultural education efforts, including Mandarin classes in L.A. schools and an exchange program that has allowed Chinese and American teens to travel across the Pacific for educational visits.

The fans go wild

Bryant is feted in China like Elvis Presley and the Beatles once were in America, as you can see here:

Throngs of fans wait for hours to catch a glimpse of him. There are security details, crowd barricades, decoy vehicles and major police presence -- a massive operation.

At the Lakers-Warriors exhibitions in 2013, Bryant was exalted despite not being able to play. Fans in Beijing chanted his name throughout the game. In Shanghai, Bryant drew a larger ovation than Yao, the hometown hero.

Last December, days after Bryant made his retirement public, university students in Jilin City in northeast China created an elaborate snow portrait on a basketball court as a tribute to him.

For the last word on Bryant's impact in China, we turn to this fan, who might just be the biggest Kobe fan anywhere.