Chinese populace has a crush on Kobe

Raleigh News & ObserverAugust 17, 2008 

BEIJING &mdash In China, Kobe Bryant is loved.

In China, Kobe Bryant is greeted with cheers.

In China, Kobe Bryant is a shut-in.

Well, at least for the duration of the USA men's basketball team's run at the Beijing Olympics, he is.

"The military won't let me go out," Bryant said, talking about the crowds that congregate wherever he goes.

Bryant has been able to attend other Olympic events and visit the athletes' village but even the few times he has done that have caused some angst for Chinese security worried about crowd control.

"If I go out in public, the military will be more than happy to walk with me and tell me to get my butt back to the hotel," Bryant said.

No other USA player attracts more people, more cheers - "Kobe-a!" the Chinese call him - or more love than the Los Angeles Lakers star and 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player.

"It's a little weird when people walk past you and they scream and start crying," Bryant said. "That freaks you out."

When the U.S. arrived in Beijing on Aug. 6, thousands cheered, climbed fences and attempted to photograph the three-time NBA champion.

When Bryant was introduced before the USA-China game at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium on Aug. 10, the building erupted with nearly as much applause as had greeted Houston Rocket Yao Ming.

Whenever the U.S. team goes to Beijing Normal University for practice, they're greeted by hundreds of Chinese pressed up against fences surrounding the entrance to the practice facility.

The U.S. team tried to go to the silk market early last week but didn't get far before mobs of picture-taking and autograph seeking fans noticed them.

"We've all had some experience with that, Kobe most of all," USA guard Michael Redd said. "Fans are passionate. We have security with us. At the same time we're not untouchable. We can move around and shake hands.

"We've had fun when we've been out, but it's not regular."

Bryant takes plenty of ribbing as a one-man Jonas Brothers sighting. USA guard Jason Kidd says he hates traveling with Bryant. USA power forward Carlos Boozer said they can't take Bryant anywhere.

"Yeah they do leave me," Bryant said. "We go to the village and I look up and they're nowhere to be found while I'm standing in the middle of a crowd of people."

The Chinese love Bryant for the same reasons other basketball fans do: They like how he plays.

Bi Zheng and his girlfriend, Zhao Yang, of Beijing came to watch the China-Germany and USA-Spain games on Saturday evening.

"We watch NBA games every week," Bi said. "They show mostly the stronger teams, the interesting games."

"We're all big fans," Zhao said.

Wang Dang, 24, of Shangxi immediately recognized the name without translation, nodding his head as Olympic and Chinese flags, stuck into the red headband he was wearing waved.

"I like his 3-point-shots, 2 points is OK, too," said Wang, who religiously watches the NBA on Chinese television and plays when he can.

Asked about Bryant's dunks, Wang enthusiastically demonstrated his favorite - a land-locked version of a cradle, over the shoulder, one-handed slam.

"He has experience and he also plays consistently, especially in the crucial moments," Wang said.

Before this month, Bryant last visited China in the summer of 2006. His No. 24 Lakers' jersey has been the top-seller in the U.S. and China, more popular than even Yao Ming in Yao's home country, the past two seasons.

Also, Bryant's face is seen throughout the new Nike store in Beijing's popular Wangfujing shopping district.

"I've been out here several times and the support has always been great, but this has been another level," Bryant said. "I don't know how this happened or when this happened."

Officials estimate 300 million Chinese are basketball fans, a number that has grown since Yao was the first selection of the 2002 NBA Draft.

In Beijing during the Olympics, the noise makes it feel like all of them have a crush on Kobe.

"They're loving him," Boozer said. "They're loving us, too. We went to the silk market and we got mobbed there. We go to tennis, swimming, whatever. It's awesome to see the fan support we're getting from the Chinese and other countries. Hopefully we're doing good job being ambassadors."

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