- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s a saying we like to reference from time to time when debating our own personal concerns and cares: “A million people in China don’t care.”

That’s not a reference Kobe Bryant can make.

Many more than a million people in China care about Kobe, who announced this week that this would be his last season, and said goodbye to Washington on Wednesday night by leading the hapless Los Angeles Lakers to 108-104 win over the Wizards.

Kobe’s gift to Washington fans? A 31-point performance to remind them one more time about the excellence the 37-year-old Bryant, now in his 20th season, often showed on NBA courts across the country.

Fans chanted Kobe’s name at Verizon Center, illustrating once again the damage done to a fan base that has now had to watch the Magic and Larry era, the Michael era, and now the Kobe era come and go with nothing to show for it.
We’ll find as Kobe continues his season-long goodbye that, despite his prickly personality, he has fans in every city who have appreciated his talent and hard work.

And those fans will be a drop in the bucket compared to those in China who adore Kobe. The life of one young Chinese girl in particular was changed by Kobe Bryant.

“We say as a joke if China was ever a democracy and Kobe would run for president, he would win,” said Emma Xu, who contributes and helps operate a popular web site known as KobeChina.

Emma was an 11-year-old young girl from Beijing when she first learned about Kobe Bryant. She had gone to school in Canada for several years as a young girl and was introduced to professional sports, which were not very popular when she left China. When she returned in 2008, the NBA had captured the attention of the country during that year’s Summer Olympics, and Kobe, more than any other player, connected with Chinese fans.

He touched Emma in particular.

“I became really interested in learning about him as a player and his career,” she said. “I was young, and it was the only way I felt I could express my interest as a fan was with a blog that I started. I was 11 years old. I could express my passion about the sport and Kobe as an athlete. I found a lot of basketball news, wrote about the significance of the news, about the Lakers and how they were doing, and specifically about Kobe and his career and as a person. I wrote about him and his family.”

This 11-year-old girl would wind up becoming one of the country’s foremost experts on Kobe Bryant. Her blog became so popular that a well-established web site that wrote about basketball invited her to become a contributor, and she wound up managing its social media devoted to Kobe.

She was attending a private school in Beijing at the age of 13, but her parents wanted to send her to the United States for schooling. She wanted to attend Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, because that was where Kobe went. She wound up going to Friends’ Central in the suburbs. Her devotion to Kobe — and her blog and the web site — only grew. The web site now has 250,000 members and its social media, devoted to Kobe, has more than 600,000 followers.

“I began translating a lot of the English articles and books about Kobe on my blog, and that got me a lot of attention among NBA fans in China,” she said. “That got me on the web site that was widely read, I was invited to write a column there and manage the social media site. That was when I got more involved in getting as much news as I could find for Kobe fans in China. I followed Lakers reporters, got pictures and videos, and brought all this to Chinese fans to get all the information they can about Kobe.”

Emma believes that the connection between Kobe and Chinese fans is rooted in the stories about Kobe’s work ethic.

“His work ethic is commonly said is one of the reasons for people being fans of Kobe,” she said. “In Chinese culture, hard work is very respected. Everyone wants to achieve success through hard work. Kobe is kind of a symbol of that — starting out as an 18-year-old in the NBA out of high school and becoming one of the greatest players in basketball. People believe it is his hard work that got him there. Kobe also dedicated a lot of time coming to China.”

When Kobe does go to China — as he did last August — it is an event like no other. When he visits cities, they block out major streets so that his fans can see him for even a brief moment of a public appearance.

“Seeing him is like a once in a lifetime experience for Chinese fans,” Emma said.

Emma’s once-in-a-lifetime experience happened when she was 17 and spending the summer back in Beijing. A phone company had a deal with Kobe and was launching a campaign and was looking for representatives from various fan clubs to be at its event. Emma was one of those they recruited.

“My English is good, and that was an advantage to try to talk to him if the chance came up,” she said. “Typically at these events you can only take pictures and follow him around. You can’t really interact with him, but I thought this was an opportunity. Even if they kick me out, I was going to go for him.”

When Emma saw Kobe, she approached him and told her about what kind of impact he had on her life.

“I asked if I could talk to him for a few minutes. He said yes, and we had this amazing conversation, partly because I had gone to Philadelphia to high school. I had learned a lot about his life in Philadelphia, his high school and friends, so we had this great conversation. He thanked me for what I did. It was an amazing interaction — an experience of a lifetime.”

Emma’s life since then has brought her back to the United States, where she is now a sophomore in the sports management program at Michigan.

Kobe made such an impact on my life,” she said. “He got me interested in sports business and introduced me to this career that I never thought would be possible for a young girl from China.”

It is a connection that goes beyond the arenas that Kobe will visit in his final season. Something about Kobe Bryant stretched across the globe, and reached into the heart of an 11-year-old girl in Beijing.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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