BEIJING – Kobe Bryant was a hugely popular figure in Asia, no more so than in China where basketball rivals soccer as the most popular sport.
However, his death Sunday in a helicopter accident comes at an awkward time between the country and the league. National broadcaster CCTV pulled all NBA games off the air following a tweet in October from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests.
The Chinese Basketball Association, led by former Rockets MVP Yao Ming, announced it would suspend all cooperation with the Texas-based team. Yao and the association have yet to comment on the crash Sunday in California that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people.
However, Yi Jianlian, the other Chinese player to find major success in the NBA, took to China's Weibo micro-blogging site to praise Bryant for teaching him the value of persistence.
“Thank you! Kobe! Hope father and daughter continue to enjoy basketball in heaven! We will always remember you!," wrote Yi, who signed with six different NBA teams, including briefly the Lakers in 2016. “Rest in peace to the legend," he added in English.
Bryant's popularity among Chinese fans was rivaled only by Yao, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. His playing appearances, including the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics won by the U.S., were far exceeded by his promotional appearances in the country, both on behalf of his own brand and basketball generally. At a 2013 Lakers preseason game against Golden State in Beijing, the arena rang out with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” despite the injured superstar not even having suited up for the game.
Commemorations begin rolling in online, many of the accompanied by photos of Bryant and his daughter Gianna with the letters R.I.P. Others showed the two dressed in uniform walking away into clouds under a basketball net.
“For our generation, our memories of the NBA begin with Jordan, and move through Kobe and Yao Ming. You were a part of our youth. Already missing the bright sun of Kobe. Go well,” wrote commentator “ZhanHao” on the popular Twitter-like Weibo messaging service.