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Obituaries

Hard work and strength of character made Kobe Bryant a star in Asia

He showed endurance and charity, which endeared him to millions in China

Kobe Bryant is greeted by young Chinese players during his visit to Shanghai in August 2015: the development of his charity represented the strong tie that existed between China and him.   © Reuters

On Sunday, basketball fans around Asia received the tragic news that Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash. Although the untimely deaths of sport stars at a young age, such as motor-racing driver Ayrton Senna or golfer Payne Stewart, have always received wide coverage, the unfortunate passing of Bryant is one that may receive greater attention than usual across Asia.

Even the People's Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, posted messages about Bryant's death on its Weibo social media account. In an era with heightened geopolitical tensions, especially between the U.S. and China, Bryant remains an important unifying figure across the world.

What made Bryant so popular in Asia? Although basketball fans throughout the continent had heard of stars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the limited broadcast schedules in Asia for the NBA basketball league made it difficult to watch games outside of highlights or the league finals.

Then, with the increased availability of broadcasts in the early 2000s, Bryant was one of the first star basketball players that fans in Asia were able to witness live on television and form a strong connection with as fans. Bryant and teammate Shaquille O'Neal were the superstars who led the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA titles between 2000 and 2002.

Another important step in Bryant's popularity in China was when Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets, developing a rivalry that played out between the Rockets and Lakers through the rest of the decade.

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for a shot against Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center in Los Angeles on May 4, 2009.   © NBAE/Getty Images

Many fans still remember the battle between Bryant and Yao in Game 1 of the 2009 Western Conference semifinals, where the stars traded baskets throughout the game. Although the Rockets ended up winning this game, Bryant continued his dominance and drove the Lakers to victory in Game 7 -- one of the defining moments of his NBA career.

Despite all of his on-court accomplishments, Bryant's off-court work and personality really helped him grow into a superstar in Asia, especially in China.

Even before he won a gold medal with Team USA during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, his jersey was already the top seller in China. Following the Olympics and several promotional visits to China, he set up the Kobe Bryant China Fund in 2009, with the goal of providing educational and sports opportunities for children in China and the U.S., as well as fostering connections between students of different cultural backgrounds.

Whereas other sport stars often visited China to enhance their own brand and earnings, the Chinese had the impression that Bryant was invested in a long-term relationship with the country.

This belief was cemented when the very first donation made by the Kobe Bryant China Fund was a large sum to help children affected by the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Beyond his charitable work, Bryant's popularity stemmed from his ethos of hard work, which is considered an important value throughout Asia. Even if victory was certain, Bryant put in the time and work: when Team USA went to its training camp for the 2008 Olympic Games, his teammates would come to breakfast to find that Bryant had already been practicing on his own for three hours.

His career arc also is one that is familiar to many in Asia, somewhat reflective of tropes common within martial arts stories and movies. He started as the brash young talented individual who was able to defeat anyone with his abilities but, as he aged, we saw his transgressions and flaws.

However, rather than fade away, Bryant continued to work hard and eventually became the wise master who was able to accomplish amazing feats with seemingly little effort.

In a game near the end of the 2013 season, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon as he was fouled, an injury which causes even the strongest of athletes to crumple to the ground. Instead, he got up, walked to the free-throw line and hit both shots while clearly in great pain, helping the Lakers win a game that was crucial for them to make the playoffs.

He refused to give up, even when injured, and showed a determination and strength that resonated with fans across Asia.

Six months after his Achilles injury, Bryant went to China on a promotional tour where tens of thousands of fans waited for hours just to get a glimpse of him. In a famous moment, one fan being interviewed broke down on television, overcome with emotion at seeing Bryant.

Kobe Bryant will always be a legendary figure in Asia, and fans across the region will be weeping again today in remembrance of the star who left us too soon.

Nicholas Watanabe is an assistant professor in the sports and entertainment management department of the University of South Carolina.

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