Act 1: In Which I Spend my Birthday at the Most Bizarre Press Conference Ever
I’m not sure how you spent your 20th birthday, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t do what I did. I woke up this morning, checked my inbox, and amid a bunch of Facebook wall posts wishing me a happy birthday was an email from Ryne asking if I wanted to go to a press conference with Kobe announcing the launch of his official Chinese-language website at LA Live’s Nokia club that afternoon. Now, did I expect to do this when I woke up this morning? But fueled by a cancelled geology lab and a profound sense of Why Not, I caught the F-Dash downtown and embarked on one of the truly bizarre experiences of my life. Here are the highlights, in journal form:
— I get to the nightclub at 1 p.m. for media check-in and get greeted by a goodie bag with a free thumb drive (which was cool), and a press release from SINA. When I read the release, I knew that we were in for some good times. Some quotes:
“From the 1996 Golden Generation draft to MVP, from the proud wearer of the NBA Championship Ring to NBA’s top player today, all of these supreme accolades are the result of the ‘Kobe spirit.’ Kobe has already become the star of stars, filling the void left by Michael Jordan.”
“He can now share his experiences and career achievements with people via his blog and videos, and hopes to enflame the NBA spirit in China.”
“CCTV basketball commentator Yu Jia believed: ‘The most-valued NBA player plus China’s biggest portal website—I would score such a duo at 81. They still have 19 points to earn in the future.’”
After the press release, it was about an hour and a half of milling about and watching the following two videos over and over again:
— A highlight video pulled off KB24.com set to the chorus of Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” which was played at least 50 times at full volume. I really liked that song, but if I ever hear that horn blast again, I will throw myself out of a window.
— A video about the SINA corporation, which seems to be a media corporation that has large shares in Chinese internet media, television, print and abstract thought. I’d love to think that China is moving closer toward freedom of the press and rights to privacy, but when you go to a party thrown by an all-powerful media corporation whose mascot is a doll with ONE GIANT FREAKY EYE FOR A HEAD AND HE’S WATCHING YOU.
The two songs they played were a traditional Chinese instrumental song of some sort and “Brush Your Shoulders Off.” Can’t make this up.
At 2:28, the event started. In Chinese. Rapid-fire Chinese that I cannot understand a single word of. The MC is the aforementioned Yu Jia, who, from what I gathered, is like the Ahmad Rashad of China—he’s the basketball commentator for CCTV, he knows Kobe from being his tour guide on Kobe’s first two trips to China with Adidas and Nike, and maintains a relationship with him. He also has the currently most-read blog on SINA, and was actually flown out from Beijing just to do this event and will fly back tonight.
The CEO of SINA, speaking in English, talked about how happy they were to have Kobe and railed off some ridiculous numbers: there are 300 million NBA fans in China, and a full 40 percent of the traffic to their sports website is NBA-related.
Then Yu Jia gave Kobe an introduction; what’s worth noting is that Yu, who’s a television professional and has met Kobe many, many times, was absolutely turned to jelly making the introduction. A lot of that probably and understandably stems from having to do it in his second language, but I have never seen an athlete come close to inspiring the kind of personal awe and admiration that Kobe Bryant got at that press conference. These were important men who were absolutely reduced to incoherent stuttering around the Mamba. You don’t see that In America.
Kobe came out, and then: THIS HAPPENED. This ACTUALLY HAPPENED! I don’t have an embeddable version of that video yet, but I beg of you to click to it. This may well have been the best moment of my life. It was absolutely amazing. I’m not even going to say anything about it for a few paragraphs. Click that link right now.
After that, it was mostly fanfare—Kobe hung a wooden cutout of his website’s logo over the door and firecrackers went off and confetti came out, Kobe opened dumplings with questions in them in place of fortunes, and told the assembled press how much he loves learning about Chinese culture (he’s been there the last three summers, and plans to go back “ASAP”), and how important it is for him to connect with his fans in both the USA and China via his websites. (I’ll let you insert your own snark about KB24.com’s new membership fee, which I sadly didn’t know about until after I’d come home from the conference.)
There was a present given to Kobe, pictures were taken with a signed basketball, and a lot of Chinese was spoken that a lovely Chinese woman translated for Kobe but the English-speaking reporters were left guessing at. There was a final video shown, made up of Chinese teenagers playing basketball and talking about why they love Kobe. (This didn’t approach the sheer greatness of the first video, although Kobe was called a “person with expansionary force,” and one fan said he hoped Kobe would have a baby boy in the upcoming year). After the Q+A was done, I couldn’t get to the back room for a one-on-one interview with Kobe, so I hung out a little with Chinese Ahmad and tried to make sense of all that had happened.
Act 2: In Which I Wonder Why China Loves Kobe Bryant
At the Q+A, I asked Kobe why he thought he is just as popular in China, if not more, than he is in the US—over here, he’s a “polarizing” figure, or one of the stars in the highest of constellations, but over in China he appears to simply be a God, getting the loudest cheers of anyone at the Olympics and topping the Chinese list of jersey sales for the last two years. By all accounts, he seems to be the absolute consensus best player on the planet and most popular of all the NBA stars. Kobe’s answer was that he wasn’t really sure, that he just goes out there and plays the game that he loves—he figures the fans respond to creativity, the dunks, and that he never imagined as a kid that growing up you’d have fans halfway across the world. (When I asked if he plans on learning Chinese, he responded that he’s having Sun Yue teach him a new word every day, although they “all sound the same to him.”)
So let’s try and figure out why Kobe Bryant is so beloved over in China. Here’s a list of the top-10 most sold NBA jerseys in China just before the Olympics:
1. Kobe Bryant
2. Kevin Garnett
3. Tracy McGrady
4. Paul Pierce
5. Allen Iverson
6. Gilbert Arenas
7. LeBron James
8. Dwyane Wade
9. Dwight Howard
10. Yao Ming
The big shockers on that list are that McGrady (who for our purposes we’ll discuss as Orlando McGrady, as I see no possible way Houston TMac is in the top-3 of anything), Iverson, Arenas, and Pierce are all ahead of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who occupy the 4th and 6th spots on the current US list. Look at that list. Now take out KG, who got a boost by switching teams in the off-season (nobody had a KG Celtics jersey), and look at who you have. They’re all crafty scoring guards. Kobe guessed that crowds were responding to “dunks and creativity,” but Pierce, McGrady and Iverson have produced exactly five dunks combined this year, all of them by Pierce, and the most dunks and creativity on the list definitely belong to James and Wade, whose explosive and improvisational style produce far more spectacular finishes. When I look at the players atop the list, I see a lot of jumpers off the dribble—these are probably the best versatile high-volume scorers in basketball.
When you see explanations from Chinese people of why they love Kobe Bryant so much, the word that keeps coming up isn’t “killer instinct” or “will to win,” or “total package”—the most-commonly used word is “skilled.” And those are probably the most skilled players in the game, even KG among big men. (DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT LOOKING TO SIMPLIFY A CULTURE I AM NOT A PART OF. These are just patterns I see, and I will not try to link them to Confucianism or anything like that.) The Chinese sports empire, which we mostly saw during the Olympics, consists of a system of learned behaviors; athletes are placed into academies at ridiculously young ages and practice a ridiculous amount, and their best sports (gymnastics, diving) seem to be the ones which benefit one individual being able to execute a ridiculously difficult and repeatable task or series of tasks with absolute precision—even megasuperhero hurdler Liu Xiang is known as winning through superior technique. The sports that the Chinese have traditionally been weaker in despite participation, such as soccer, are the ones that rely heavily on team play and the ability to improvise on the fly.
All of which helps to explain why the NBA has taken off so dramatically in China—baseball and tennis, where the defense has the ball, are entirely improvisational endeavors. Football is scripted so tightly that there is almost no room for individual style or maneuvers to develop, with everything hinging on a sense of synergy and the ability to perform the simple with force. Basketball takes the precision and importance of memorized behavior evident in traditionally Chinese-dominated sports and allows those movements to link to one another to allow individuals to become precise and mannered on the micro-scale but on a team scale become wild, disruptive, unpredictable game-changers. The shooting guards atop the China most-sold list are rogues of quartz.
If you look at which basketball players are effective through a series of learned individual maneuvers of ridiculous difficulty executed time after time with precision, then Kobe Bryant is at the top of that list. Easily. Maybe the best ever. If basketball was scored by judges, Kobe Bryant would probably be the best player ever. His jab-steps, his fadeaways, his crossovers and shakes in the post combine the rarest of qualities in that they are at once amazing and clearly the product of repetition, and Pierce, Iverson, Arenas and McGrady all have games based on the effectiveness of their learned individual moves instead of their use of athleticism or a sense of synergy and ability to alter it. So Kobe, that’s my idea for how to answer the question I asked you.
Act 3: In Which I Try To Figure Out Why Kobe Bryant Loves China
To restate something I said earlier, I have never seen an athlete treated with the reverence I saw Kobe Bryant treated with at that press conference. I expected this story to be more or less about Kobe coming off a superhuman performance and heartbreaking loss less than 24 hours earlier and then having to fulfill a corporate responsibility, and “Braylon Edwards doing five-hour energy spots”-esque hilarity would ensue. That wasn’t the case. Sure, Kobe was a little weirded out by some of the stuff that went on, but he never got impatient or looked like he didn’t want to be there. This is a project that Kobe really believes in, and you can tell that he really is touched by all the love he gets from China, and that it really is important for him to connect with his fans. The paradox of the Kobe reverence that permeated the conference was that as much as those in attendance were in awe of him, they were much more willing to accept Kobe and ingratiate themselves to him as one of them, which was the theme of the entire conference. Look at that linked video again. Yes, it’s hilarious. But why? The most ridiculous part to us is Kobe’s repeated declarations that he’s “friends” with seemingly random Chinese people.
In America, we’re used to thinking of our professional athletes as only tangentially human—they’re a lot bigger, they’re capable of athletic feats that we could never dream of doing ourselves, they speak only in tightly scripted clichés for fear of straying and being made pariahs, and they reside in different monetary brackets and act in a manner we don’t recognize. I didn’t get that feeling at this press conference—people don’t think the idea of being friends with Kobe is ridiculous, or think it anything other than friendly to wish that he has a child this upcoming year. Call it leftover Mao-era values, an athletic culture where the best athletes are the ones with the most refined skills and practice habits rather than the most physical gifts and natural cognitive “feel,” or even a country with less of a profound racial difference between the makeup of those playing the sports and those watching them. From what I saw today, Kobe is not a cold-blooded assassin, or basketball Mozart dropped straight from angels to the court, or a sociopath with skill born of all-consuming compulsion that simultaneously keeps him from actualization. In China, Kobe Bryant is a hero of the people, not a deity to be worshiped, condemned or (yes, it’s my fault too) analyzed by them. And that’s why this was my favorite Chinese press conference birthday ever.