BEIJING (Reuters) - There is a story about Kobe Bryant once flying into China in a private jet and being unable to get off the plane for fear of being crushed by fans.
Bryant’s visit had triggered airport chaos, but there was another reason he was stuck on the tarmac — a “very important” member of the Chinese government wanted his autograph.
“Yeah, I remember,” Bryant told reporters as fans leaned dangerously over a guard rail to look down on the Los Angeles Lakers guard as he talked to media at the Beijing Olympics.
The NBA’s most valuable player is arguably the most popular non-Chinese athlete at the Games in a country where basketball is the second-most followed sport after soccer.
Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will go home with more gold around their neck but Bryant’s fame in China runs deeper than the Beijing Olympics.
“I don’t really know how to explain it to be honest with you,” said Bryant with a sheepish grin. “I think it’s my fifth time in China. I’ve been popular here since ‘99 but this summer ... I didn’t know I was this big!”
Bryant’s number 24 Lakers jersey is the biggest-selling in China, more popular even than Yao Ming’s China or Houston Rockets jerseys.
Only when Yao’s name is announced before tip-off do the roars match those for Bryant, who led the United States into the Olympic semi-finals with 25 points in a 116-85 win over Australia on Wednesday.
“Kobe,” said 14-year-old Zhang Wei when asked who is favorite player was — American or Chinese. “He’s cool. His dunks are awesome.”
Bryant is estimated by Forbes to be the richest athlete at the Olympics, raking in tens of millions through endorsements on top of his seven-year $136 million contract with the Lakers.
Chinese cheering Americans would of course have been unthinkable not so long ago, but fans in Beijing have been infatuated with the NBA razzle-dazzle.
Bryant remains the hot fan favorite, constantly serenaded with chants of “Kobe, Kobe” when he sits on the bench.
“I throw them a little wave,” he said, wafting his hand regally. “One of those little princess waves.”
Editing by Alison Williams