Kobe Bryant Rules China

How Kobe Bryant hustled his way to iconic status in China

(Photo Illustration: Diana Quach)
Apr 08, 2016 at 3:38 PM ET

Kobe Bryant’s newest Chinese Nike ad dropped yesterday, titled “Don’t Love Me Hate Me,” and it is a doozy.

The ad begins with staccato, quick cuts between hand-held shots of Kobe arriving in an airport, surrounded by of millions of adoring Chinese fans, with portentous, atonal piano chords intermittently struck to drive the point home, as a black and white framed image of Kobe’s seemingly disembodied head shoots a death stare and solemnly intones via voice over:

“You love me. You love me, because I’m Kobe.”

“Because I’m a five-time champion.”

“Because I’m one of the greatest to step on the court.”

That seems all well and good, and the commercial has thrown together a montage of some lovely slo-mo images of Kobe celebrating and firing off contested step-back 20-footers to reaffirm that this is true. But not so fast:

“But you shouldn’t. You should hate me.”

“Because I gave you four AM. “

“Because I pushed you.”

“Hate me, because I demanded greatness.”

“And greatness demands everything, “

“Love me… when you become greater.”

Okay then.

As to the rationale behind the commercial, Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai told Adweek that “young ballers in China don’t share Americans’ mixed feelings about the dude who would be like Mike: ‘Millions of Chinese don’t just love Kobe, they worship his every move. … Today he is seen as the powerful and beloved mentor of Chinese basketball and China’s adopted sport hero.’”

If you’re wondering why the minute-long film scans as so overwrought, it’s because Kobe himself worked with Nike China to create something “just as provocative as the man himself. It was an intense and uncompromising process because Kobe was just as demanding on the creative team as he was on the Lakers,” W+K Shanghai creative director Terence Leong said.

What do you think the odds are that at some point during a brainstorming sesh Kobe eviscerated some poor copywriter or hapless assistant using his standard mentoring techniques? I’d say a good 26-28 percent.

Kobe’s weird advertising campaigns—like this Tom Cruise in Magnolia-style joint—notwithstanding, W+K Shanghai is right: Kobe is treated differently in China. When he travels there he’s literally feted like a God made flesh, with apoplectic throngs dying to paw the hem of his garment, to the point of being driven to tears.

As Dan Devine wrote at Yahoo!, this is no accident. Bryant has spent years cultivating his popularity and planting his branded flag in the world’s fastest growing market.

He’s made annual offseason trips there to meet fans and host camps, and appeared in commercials airing in the nation. He’s participated in exhibition charity games and even reportedly briefly entertained the idea of playing in China during the 2011 NBA lockout. He’s built a Chinese social media presence and launched multiple charitable initiatives in the Far East. And so on.

There’s both a massive statue of Bryant in Guangzhou’s sculpture park, and in December, students drew a damned realistic portrait of Kobe’s mug in the snow on Beihua University’s basketball court. The tribute was a response to Kobe’s announcement that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, prompting Wei Xudong (and many others) to realize that he “must do something for Kobe.”

During the 2015 NBA Finals, Bryant went on the air to do color commentary for the China-based online community Sina, according to CBS Sports, and he “partnered with the Chinese ecommerce company Alibaba Group” to create even more “Kobe-branded products in China,” including “a new social media site in the country.”

Let’s see. Cult-like following, dedicated social media, television presence, widening line of products tied to a specific brand, creepy statues, all leading to untold millions earned outside of the ducats he’s collected in the U.S.

Yep, after he retires, Kobe’s going to lead a glorious people’s revolution in China and be named dictator-for-life.