SHANGHAI: First Shaquille O'Neal, then Ron Artest and Jason Kidd. Now, Kobe Bryant.
The NBA heat wave continued to sweep China as Bryant, the NBA champion and finals MVP, landed in the most populous nation over the weekend, delighting his enormous fan base during his two-day jaunt through Shanghai and Chengdu.
Los Angeles' all-star guard Kobe Bryant (right) displays his basketball skills to Chinese youths in Chengdu, the last stop of his 2009 Asian tour, July 26, 2009. [Asianewsphoto]
The China tour is a part of his six-stop journey in Asia as he teaches his skills as a basketball player to the next generation of players through his "NIKE Champion Returns - Kobe Training Camp".
"The kids in China are brilliant and they continue to amaze me every time I'm here," said the Los Angeles Lakers all-star guard in Shanghai on Saturday. "I'm pleased to see these talented players and I know they have trained very hard to get to where they are today. My goal is to inspire these guys to work even harder to improve their skills and never give up their vision of becoming great players."
In the past several weeks, a dozen of NBA players have visited China. But few receive the same wild reception as Bryant, who is said to have the largest fan base in China, apart from national hero Yao Ming, the injured Houston Rockets center.
According to the NBA, Bryant's No 24 jersey is the best seller in China, topping sales figures of Yao's jersey. Visits to Bryant's Chinese official blog are set to break 20 million since it was launched Jan 16.
"Writing blogs makes me feel like I'm not separated from (the Chinese fans)," Bryant said. "That's a great feeling. I want them to know part of me. We can now share experiences and the championship. I should say thank you to them for all their support."
And Bryant, who was in Chengdu yesterday, is bringing more than just his basketball skills to Asia.
Bryant heads for Beijing today for a charity banquet this evening to initiate his Kobe Bryant China Fund, which he recently established. The fund will partner with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, a Chinese charity organization, to raise money within China for education and health programs.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Bryant accepted an award from the Asia Society for his work as a "cultural ambassador" at the end of last month. His current fund, the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation, teaches middle school students in the US about the Chinese language and culture.
Bryant has tried to keep a low profile in the past about his charity efforts and it was no different this weekend. During a media conference in Shanghai, he stated through his agency that he wouldn't answer any questions about his foundation. He also declined questions about Yao, who is currently nursing a foot injury, because he "has been asked about it too many times."
In contrast to his low-key attitude toward the charity, the hottest NBA star gave his fans a flamboyant basketball show.
Amid thunderous cheers from adoring fans at the packed Luwan Gymnasium in downtown Shanghai on Saturday, the Bryant witnessed an exhibition game as part of the W.N.I.K.E. All Day Outdoor Basketball campaign between teams from Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Approximately a thousand young fans witnessed the event, waving posters and banners of their basketball hero and shouting "M-V-P" repeatedly. Twenty fans also caught basketballs bearing his signature thrown to the stands.