I’ve never talked sports with my dad, partly because I’m terrible explaining sports terminology and tactics in Korean and partly because he just never really seemed to care at all. But yesterday, not long after word of Kobe Bryant’s death broke on TMZ, I got a phone call. I could barely get a hello in before my dad interrupted me: “How is Kobe gone?”
I didn’t know what to say. “A helicopter in fog, I guess. But it’ll take some time to really figure it out,” I replied after a beat. “I didn’t realize you’d know or care.”
“I can’t believe Kobe is dead,” he muttered again, clicking his tongue (tsk-tsk-tsk) in that typical Korean way of signifying disappointment.
My dad once described basketball as “the most boring of all sports,” and only knew two names in the game: Jordan and Kobe. But as a transplant from Korea to Southern California, he witnessed the glow of Bryant’s greatness via local-news highlights as well as his sprawling influence in the culture. He didn’t need to follow the Lakers to deduce he loved and admired Kobe. Tales of No. 24’s blistering work ethic, take-no-shit attitude and dreamlike execution on the court were enough. And his demands for me to stay focused on my goals were filtered through the lens of Kobe, too.
“You gotta think like Kobe Bryant, and have fun when the grind gets tough,” he’d say. Or maybe it was something like, “Kobe doesn’t stop practicing because he’s good.” One time, when I won a swimming heat in high school, he complimented me with the near non-sequitur observation that I “looked like Kobe out there.”
Bryant seemed to coalesce so much of what my dad found fascinating about the American experiment, irrespective of the sport of basketball. And the grief and mourning seen today in places like Japan, China, Italy and the Philippines reflects a side of Bryant that Americans never really got to see up close. It’s not just his work ethic or “Mamba Mentality” that endeared him to such wide and disparate audiences. Instead, people saw another side of the superstar during his international tours — not just his talent and obsession with winning, but an open-hearted gratitude and desire to learn, too. Bryant’s intellectual curiosity and heart extended beyond his immediate world, and I think it showed distant fan bases that he cared about them and where they came from. In return, they embraced him as one of their own.
Modern superstars like Steph Curry and LeBron James are huge around the world, too, and significant credit goes to NBA legend Yao Ming (now the chairman of the Chinese Basketball League) for helping solidify the cultural and business bond between the league and China, its second biggest market. But none of those players have inspired the cult of personality that exists around Bryant. He was loved not merely as a transcendent ball player, but as a metaphor for what pure effort and fearless thought can bring to anyone’s table. No wonder my immigrant dad, and other fans from international communities, found his mythology so satisfying.
A young Bryant grew up in Italy, and began shooting his first shots at the age of 6, while growing up in the small town of Rieti. His father, Joe Bryant, played in the pro Italian league and the impact of the Bryant name still holds strong in places where they stayed, including Reggio Emilia. “Kobe Bryant grew up here and was, for all of us, a ‘Reggiano,’” Luca Vecchi, the town’s mayor, wrote on Facebook after Bryant’s death.
He kept his fluent Italian even after moving away, credited the country for building his game and reportedly stayed in touch with childhood friends throughout his career. Italy’s pro basketball league will be honoring him with a moment of silence in every game for a full week. But the support for Kobe in Italy seems almost restrained compared to the emotions spilling out of places like China and the Philippines, where Bryant has been treated as a national hero for most of his career. Even three years after his 2016 retirement, Bryant’s jersey is the most popular seller in China — despite the Golden State Warriors ranking as the most popular team.
Bryant loved the affectionate Chinese nickname fans dubbed him — Xiao Fei Xia (小飞侠), or “Little Flying Warrior.” And he returned the favor through visits and philanthropy, creating the Kobe Bryant China Fund to support education and sports programs for Chinese kids. In the U.S., he created a sister fund to pay for Chinese cultural immersion and Mandarin language lessons for high-schoolers. He was a cultural ambassador, both figuratively and literally (in the eyes of the Chinese government).
But sometimes, the little things mattered just as much. On Friday, Bryant posted a Chinese New Year message to his Weibo (a.k.a. Chinese Twitter) profile. “Xin Chun Kuai Le to my dear friends in China!” he wrote to his 9.2 million followers. News of his death triggered a massive response across Chinese social media, with many resharing his post as a reminder that he cared. The reactions ranged from somber to desperate.
“Please don’t go. I love you so much. You were my entire youth and childhood. You are my role model,” one WeChat user wrote.
“God has chosen the best player for his team. Goodbye, legend,” a Weibo user said.
Even China’s state media offered a tribute — an eye-raising move given that relations between the Chinese government and the NBA are still tense following strife over the Hong Kong protests. “From primary school to university, he accompanied the youth of countless people, and evoked the love for basketball among many young Chinese people,” read a Weibo post by People’s Daily, a publication by the ruling communist party.
By midday on Monday in China, his death was trending with 2.4 billion views.
The reaction out of Japan, a nation not known for its basketball fandom, was even more indicative of Bryant’s influence. Funny how things unfold: Bryant’s father named him “Kobe,” after the Japanese city, because of his unabashed love for the region’s special beef. The metaphor is apt — Kobe beef is perhaps the most expensive in the world, prized for its incredible quality and flavor as well as the challenge of simply creating such a rare treat. Bryant himself leaned into the connection, visiting Kobe to donate to a government charity in 1998 and actively working as the city’s ambassador for a decade between 2001 and 2011.
“Kobe Bryant was an international superstar, who also held a special place for the people of Kobe city,” Mayor Kiza Hisamoto said in a statement on Monday. “We would once again like to express our gratitude for the support Kobe Bryant gave to this city and offer our heartfelt condolences.”
Then there’s the Philippines — one of the most basketball-crazed countries on Earth, as a side effect of American colonialism in the early 1900s. It’s a different story than China, where Bryant’s rise coincided with new interest in basketball and the gradual opening of the country’s cultural barriers. But he was one of the first NBA stars to prioritize the fan base in the Philippines, making an unprecedented seven visits, most recently in 2016 after his retirement. He wasn’t there because a marketing contract demanded it — instead, Bryant repeatedly noted how he loved the excitement around playing basketball there, especially from young kids. His willingness to participate in Filipino culture with dress and dance, meanwhile, also helped endear him to older generations of Pinoy observers.
A tragic twist is that fans on Sunday inaugurated a new community center and court in Manila, built in Bryant’s honor. Dubbed “House of Kobe,” the center has wall-sized murals of Bryant and became the impromptu location for flowers and memorial speeches after news of his death hit. Other fans in Quezon City gathered at the local arena to pay tribute with more flowers and chanting.
Bryant obviously wasn’t the perfect person depicted in so many of these loving tributes, and he was never going to be — we have a way of erasing sins when it hurts the most satisfying narrative, after all, and international fans are no better than Americans at confronting the fact that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old hotel worker. But their lasting devotion to him, despite the challenges of watching American basketball from a million time zones away, speaks to a side of Bryant’s character that American audiences never got to experience firsthand.
It’s the only way I can explain why my dad could care enough to call me as soon as he woke up and saw the news. I remember Kobe first and foremost through the moments on the court that made my heart choke up into my throat — whether that was a clutch Finals performance or his absurd 60-point retirement game. But my dad doesn’t remember any of that. What he remembers are all the tales his customers told about Kobe when he was running a liquor store in L.A., memories that are now legend in his mind.
“I’ve never witnessed someone who had so much influence with his spirit,” he tells me now in Korean. “And I never saw so many people who cared right back with the same intensity.”