The 2000s have seen China emerge as a sports force, with basketball becoming the co-leading attraction (with soccer). The country’s infatuation with one particular NBA legend stands out. LeBron James? Michael Jordan? Nope.

It’s the late Kobe Bryant, and it’s not even close.

The Kobe love fest timeline shows the superstar’s popularity was fed by several key factors.

China’s first transcendent star, Yao Ming, was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002, coinciding nicely with the explosion of social-media platforms. Bryant’s timing was perfect. The Lakers won their third straight NBA title in June 2002, and Bryant was voted first-team All-NBA and MVP of the 2002 All-Star Game.

All this was driving China’s enormous NBA interest just as Jordan’s career was in its final (Washington Wizards) chapter.

Facebook arrived in 2004, Twitter in 2006, NBA China was founded in 2008, Weibo (a Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter) in 2009 and Instagram in 2010. Bryant embraced social media, connecting on a personal level with millions of fans in China.

James, who won his fourth NBA title this month, paid tribute to Bryant via Instagram, writing, “Hope I made you proud my brother!! Love and miss you Champ!!” 

That respect was already cemented years ago, when James realized ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics just how big Bryant was in the Asian country.

“I thought I was famous until I got (to China) with Kobe,” James said at the time.

Bryant, who died in a January helicopter crash in California, was proactive in building his brand. He had visited China to host a basketball clinic in 1998. He returned on a promotional tour in 2001 and visited every year from 2006 to 2015 on Nike promotional tours.

And, at those Beijing Games in 2008, the men’s basketball gold medal was won by the U.S. team — including LeBron James and the wildly popular Kobe Bryant.

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