Friday, January 16th, 2009 at 12:04 pm  |  57 responses

SLAM Adventures: Kobe’s Chinese Press Junket

A Chinese press conference birthday story.

by John Krolik

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 Ahhhh! Real Monsters!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.

'Ha! I can't understand you!"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 Kobe unveiling the internet.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

Embracing the culture to the fullestTo 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.


Images via China Daily and SINA.com

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  • collin

    you would think that more people would buy yao jerseys

  • collin


  • http://slamonline.com/ Ryne Nelson

    I’m stunned. Kobe looks great in traditional Chinese garb. Oh, and happy belated birthday. Sorry I hit you up with an email, not a FB wall post. ;-)

  • Krishan


    (we’re friends!)

  • http://double-technical.blogspot.com Zee!

    Awesome article. That factiod about the jerseys in China was…. interesting. T-mac?? really?? And that big a$$ eye on the SINA mascot…creepy.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Kung Fu Panda was a good movie.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    nice, jones….
    Your little ones have it in the “rotation?”

  • http://slamonline.com/ Ryne Nelson

    John, your analysis of why China loves Kobe is as good as anything I’ve seen/read. You probably are spot on with this.

  • Pingback: SLAM ONLINE |

  • http://www.where-basketball-b-longs.blogspot.com/ B. Long

    This is awesome and scary all at the same time.

  • http://docfunk.blogspot.com Doc Funk

    Later Yi Jianlan held a conference where he dressed up in a cowboy hat and bolo tie and answered questions which were presented inside corndogs.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    That and Wall-E – the bonus cuts, Burn-E and Presto, are outstanding. Pretty much pee ourselves every time watching Presto.
    Not saying it’s as funny as THIS, of course…

  • jay

    Ryan’s just jealous because Lebron won’t look
    as good as Kobe, in the traditional outfit. Don’t mind
    me Mr. Jones, I just felt like it was obligatory.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Of course.

  • http://www.kicksonfire.com Anton

    that shirt is fresh to da max

  • Michael

    what is with all the crap that keeps coming up on top of the story and all the comments are covering up the story, does this happen for anyone else? man this new layout sucks

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    I’ve heard good things about Wall-E.
    We are still in the Cars/Jungle Book faze…..

    Hey, John, good read, too!

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Sounds like Michael’s still on IE…
    Wall-E’s pretty great, Cub. The fact that 4-year-olds like a flick that might actually get a best-picture nomination tells you a lot.

  • Michael

    well i am at work so it is IE or nothing. still i would have thought such a popular site wuld allow for the most used bowser. interesting article by the way.

  • http://iwantoutofokc.com/ James the balla

    @ Micheal … yeah I get it all the time on this site. The words and sh1t are all jumbled and its covered by the side stuff. Not on my home computer but my work one!!

  • http://docfunk.blogspot.com Doc Funk

    google chrome > firefox > blackberry browser > your imagination > IE

  • Michael

    yeah firefox at home is cool…microsoft strikes again

  • Jackie Moon

    Doc Funk – I liked Chrome for a little bit, but then its started to lag behind Firefox on speed. I also don’t like the lack of a google bookmarks add-on. I need that.

    Kobe: the People’s Republic Champ.

    He just wants to be loved.

  • Tyrone Shoelaces

    k so what happened in this video my work comp won’t let me load this.

  • Jackie Moon

    John has really hit the nail on its small little head: “If basketball was scored by judges, Kobe Bryant would probably be the best player ever.”

    Some appreciate the performance, while others put more emphasis on the results. The performance and the result may intertwine frequently, but they aren’t the same.

  • http://docfunk.blogspot.com Doc Funk

    @JM I feel you on the bookmarks. It loads flash-related stuff slow. I like the start page with the top-9 and the ability to shut down individual crashed processes. Can’t really go wrong with firefox.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Step your browser game up, boys.

  • http://ittakesanationofmillionstoholdthissac.blogspot.com ciolkstar

    Krolik is doing work. And he’s just 20? Taking Geology labs and whatnot? Much respect.

  • http://ittakesanationofmillionstoholdthissac.blogspot.com ciolkstar

    ^ I was struck by that same exact line, Jackie Moon

  • Jackie Moon

    @Doc = not to mention, I can’t get the NBA Top Ten Video to play in Chrome. But I still use it sometimes, because it looks nice. Windows IE gets the shaft, though.

  • http://slamonline.com/ Ryne Nelson

    To everyone having trouble viewing the site: please tell us which browser (IE 6, IE 7?) and operating system you’re using so we can try to fix the problem.

  • http://www.kicksonfire.com Anton

    SLAM fans, I’m gonna give you exclusive Kobe news for free.
    Kobe Bryant says he’s in for the U.S. National Team in both 2010 and 2012:
    “The chance to represent your country, that’s not even a thought-process for me,” Bryant said Wednesday. “If they want me to be on it, I’m all game.”
    The rest of the world is screwed. You’re welcome.

  • http://slamonline.com Lang Whitaker

    Good stuff, John.

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    At 2:19 of the video, does virtual Kobe goose that little Chinese girl?

  • Adam T.

    John, great piece & what a birthday present…I’m a big Kobe fan and this article brings some brilliant insight.

  • http://idunkonthem.blogspot.com/ albie1kenobi

    i’ve only been able to scanned through the article quickly, and so far everything’s amazing and bizarre at the same time. props for the article.

    Ryne, i have the same problem and it’s IE6 on window XP professional. we are at work and have no rights to install firefox.

  • Teddy-the-Bear

    Awesome, awesome article. Seriously, great work.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKz8ACUAApQ&NR=1 BETCATS

    this might be the best thing i ever read on this webstie, and may be better than all things in the future. Wow. Good stuff Krolik

  • Earwacks

    Dude, your only twenty? This was a very well written piece and your hypothesis is pretty damn clever. I can think of more than a few ESPN columnists who should be worried about their jobs. Cheers to you and a bright future.

  • Eric

    John I go to the other school in LA but i want to know if there is anyway I can get involved with writing for SLAM? Hope to hear from ya and happy birthday

  • http://www.friendster.com/sesa Sesa

    Kobe had a facebook?

  • http://ezracrow.org ezra crow

    i reckon the reason that yao is so low on the list is because everyone already has his jersey — he has been on the same team for seven years. and tmac’s jersey sales are inflated by the yao effect, i mean heck, even shane battier has got to have pretty decent jersey sales in china right? maybe vince carter will start climbing up this list because Yi is on his team.

    love the article. that video was some serious funtastic bizarre.

  • Vida

    No kobe doesnt havent facebook.^^^.

    Great article btw.

  • http://www.hibachi20.blogspot.com Hursty

    It’s interesting to note that John says T-mac doesn’t rely on athleticism- and we just had an aruguement/discussion saying that he DOES. Kobe has those several go-to moves. What does Tracy have? An elbow fade-away? hmmm.
    It was a really good piece though. Absolutely.

  • http://www.kicksonfire.com Anton

    “Hey guys, it’s your man KB24 here bringing it exclusive to my paying fans. Well I had a tough day today, our second straight loss this week. I blame it on the ever-so-uninspired Bynum who doesn’t play what he gets paid. 3 rebounds? Seriously bro? F***ing Ariza got 3 rebounds with a fraction of your minutes! And how can we let Howard score 25 points? I mean he stays in the same 2 square foot spot on the damn floor all night – put a couple of defenders on him and he’ll be more confused than Vujacic when I tell him to play defense. Anyway, y’all see that Cavs/Hornets game? Bron won it with three key injured players! Sh*t, that crab’s out of the pot now, we’re pretty much screwed for Monday.
    I sent a few text messages to Candace Parker congratulating her on her baby, I’m 30% sure it ain’t mine. Ahhh just playin’!
    Thought of the day: I think Shaq’s @ss takes like blueberries.
    Hey you cats catch my new commercial? It was all good until I made the horse wear my IV’s and snapped its ankle, forcing it to be put to sleep.
    Anyway, Vanessa’s calling me to wax the diamond ring again.
    Y’all keep safe and keep payin’ me.
    Kobe Out.”

  • floe

    grand douchery

  • Jackie Moon

    blah blah blah make fun of Kobe blah blah denigrate him blah blah something about Colorado blah blah something about Shaq blah blah lost to the Celtics blah blah diamond ring.

  • Z

    At work : IE 6 running on XP, SP3

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKz8ACUAApQ&NR=1 BETCATS

    “Jackie Moon Posted: Jan.17 at 1:22 pm
    blah blah blah make fun of Kobe blah blah denigrate him blah blah something about Colorado blah blah something about Shaq blah blah lost to the Celtics blah blah diamond ring.”

    this made me lol my pants

  • Jackie Moon

    Thank you very much.

  • http://jacuzzikillers.com Jakae

    wow, you are truly a great writer. what a bizarre and fascinating article…but you HAD to have had a better Chinese press conference birthday at some point, right? What about that year with Chairman Mao, and the big wheel? Remember?

  • aotearaw

    Vids not working for me, alternate link about?

  • The Dude

    Dude, no offense but you say youre not looking to simplify a culture youre but thats exactly what you ended up doing.

    Have you ever seen a game of table tennis in China? Its intense in the most surreal fashion; the “improvisation” needed to even see the ball no less hit it. And… its 10x faster than any tennis match.

    One of the most fundamental and valued aspects of the Chinese culture is the value for ingenuity. An ability to flow with the punches.

    When a Chinese person says the word, “Skilled”, youre thinking he means technique; form; perfection. I think it means the ability to perform at the greatest level – its a vague statement that include athleticism, improvisation and repetition of learned form – not either or, but all inclusive.

    So dont think of a mathematician, think of an artist.

    Instead of imagining the olympic athletes youve seen as a gauge to the representation of the Chinese psyche, think of one of their greatest icons and folk heroes ever, Bruce Lee, as a fair understanding for why they love Kobe. If you figure out why they loved Bruce, then you’d see what China sees in Kobe.

    When they see Lebron James, they see a bully with two fists full of cash. When they see Dwade, they see a crude instrument. When they see Yao, they see the shadow of communism.

    When they see Kobe, they see Bruce. The intellect, the fluidity, the rebel, the ferocity of spirit.

  • http://www.mynameinorange.blogspot.com Hisham

    Wow this was very good. the video does not work at work, which is really frustrating. REALLY frustrating

  • http://www.hibachi20.blogspot.com Hursty

    I “lol’d” pretty hard at Anton. Funnies.

  • ka

    “I sent a few text messages to Candace Parker congratulating her on her baby, I’m 30% sure it ain’t mine. Ahhh just playin’!” lol. how you say kobe sucks in chah-nees?

  • that dude

    John Krolick, as a Chinese person, I can confirm that you have incredibly managed to nail the chinese psyche in terms of reverence for superior “skill”.

    If you play on the playgrounds on China, physical play is frowned upon. Skill, quickness is admired.

    Look at any Kung Fu movie, the emphasis is always on the skill, speed, precision and accuracy of the martial artist.

    Awesome investigative skills John.