Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, shook the sports world.
Halfway around the world, in a country battling a public health emergency in the form of a coronavirus, it was Kobe’s death that dominated online chatter.
The retired Lakers star and global icon had special significance for Chinese fans. More so in China than anywhere else, Kobe was anointed early on as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan; while Chinese fans only witnessed the latter half of Jordan’s career, they followed Kobe’s every move from the beginning. His popularity perhaps even exceeded that of homegrown basketball legend Yáo Míng 姚明.
High-profile TV commercials, sponsorships, and charitable ventures made Kobe a household name. As ESPN points out, “At a 2013 Lakers preseason game against the Golden State Warriors in Beijing, the arena rang out with chants of ‘Kobe! Kobe!’ despite the injured superstar not even suiting up for the game.” When Kobe briefly stepped onto the court during the gold medal game at the FIBA World Cup in Beijing over the summer, it was clear that he commanded every eye.
At 7:38 pm Beijing time on Monday, the official Sina Weibo account of the NBA posted an article titled, “Mamba Out: I will still miss you a thousand times over,” using the hashtag #FORKOBE# — a hashtag that has since drawn 86 million views. Meanwhile, the hashtag #科比去世# (kēbǐ qùshì — #KobeDead), which was posted in the morning, has racked up more than 4 billion views, by far the most of any topic during the day.
Sina Sports also issued a series of posts looking back at Kobe’s career highlights and his impact on Chinese basketball fans. It also included updates on the helicopter crash that claimed his and eight other lives.
Standing out among the posts was an interview from 2016, when Kobe was asked about his opinion on death. In the clip, Kobe calmly said that there wouldn’t be life without death, and that he viewed it as a natural part of the process.
Over the day, Kobe’s pictures with his daughter and family, his posters and quotes, filled up WeChat Moments (similar to Facebook’s news feed). For diehard fans who have followed his career since their youth, this felt like an end of an era.
Thousands of people expressed their condolences on Weibo and WeChat, sharing personal memories of watching the “Black Mamba.”
1) My man*, post an Instagram, stop scaring me
3) it’s not real it’s not real it can’t be real
4) Tonight for strange and unexplainable reasons I couldn’t sleep. Boss, you’ve really given me a fright
5) RIP Kobe
* Translated for meaning, 老大 lǎodà here can be “king/legend/boss”
Translation 1: “More or less everything basketball-related all started with you
Grew accustomed to life and death, but your death I will never get used to”
Translation 2: “All the best on your journey”
Some people reposted Kobe’s narration of “Dear Basketball,” an animated short film that won him an Oscar in 2018. The image of Kobe as a kid playing basketball with rolled-up socks is forever inscribed in the memory of Chinese fans.