This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Chinese NBA fans were mourning the loss at the weekend of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant who died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
Bryant’s helicopter plunged into a hillside in the Los Angeles area on Sunday after the pilot tried to avoid a heavy fog that had left many other aircraft grounded, included police choppers.
The NBA postponed the Los Angeles Lakers’ next game as a gesture of mourning and respect for the victims.
Bryant had chartered the luxury Sikorsky S-76B aircraft to avoid LA’s notorious traffic jams and fly him and the other passengers from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County, as he headed to his Mamba Sports Academy youth center where Gianna was scheduled to play in a basketball tournament.
In China, where the NBA has a massive following, fans and fellow basketball stars alike paid tribute to Bryant, who made many trips there and referred to the country as his “second home.”
Bryant’s official account on the social media platform Weibo had a pinned post containing a video clip of Bryant saying “dear friends in China” wishing a happy Lunar New Year and thanking them for their support.
Tens of thousands of comments, condolences and tributes were attached. “Please, don’t die!” read one much-liked comment.
“Kobe! You will be forever in my heart! My idol forever!!!,” wrote @wode1986, while @yigejiejing commented: “Boss, I’m begging you, put an end to these rumors fast!!”
Chinese basketball star Yi Jianlian, who had been a teammate of Bryant’s in the NBA, also commented on his official Weibo account.
Yi recalled that when they were teammates, both he and Bryant had suffered from cracked skin on their fingers. But while Yi took six weeks off training to wait for the lesions to heal, Bryant had carried on training every day.
‘Mamba spirit will remain in my heart forever’
He said he had learned from Bryant the meaning of “persistence.”
Zhou Qi, who had previously played for the Houston Rockets, said he still couldn’t quite believe the news.
“Kobe Bryant’s Mamba spirit will remain in my heart forever,” Zhou wrote, in a reference to Bryant’s philosophy of persistence.
Wang Dazhao, director of the sports section of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, said Bryant had also been instrumental in promoting basketball in China following his retirement.
“Whenever he came to China, which he did many times after [retirement], he would also visit ordinary schools to meet the kids and teach them how to play,” Wang told RFA.
“Stars like Kobe really inspired Chinese kids at a time when there weren’t many inspirational stores in Chinese basketball,” he said.
Bryant, who was known in China by his nickname Peter Pan, had once revealed that Gianna had hoped to learn Chinese and act as interpreter on his visits to China. But fans lamented the fact that those hopes were now dashed.
Hao Qin, journalism professor at the Chengdu Institute of Physical Education, said that while retired Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan was the idol of Chinese basketball fans born in the 1970s, Bryant was a massive figure for those born since the 1980s.
“With the exception of Michael Jordan, there are few Americans who have inspired an entire generation [here], especially those born in the eighties, in the way that Bryant has,” Hao told RFA on Tuesday.
“Just like Jordan before him, Bryant has had an impact on a whole generation. He is one of the most famous Americans in China,” Hao said.
Bryant was named by U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine in 2015 as one of 50 celebrities who had had an impact on Sino-U.S. relations.
He was the only sports star to make the list, and the magazine described him as “the NBA’s ambassador to China.”
Also killed in Sunday‘s crash were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter; and Christina Mauser, a girls’ basketball coach at a Southern California elementary school.