BEIJING - It's Kobe's Team, in China, anyway.
The U.S. men's basketball team, composed entirely of superstars, isn't really anyone's, but Kobe Bryant stands alone, at least as far as 1.3 billion Chinese are concerned. If LeBron James is "King James" in the United States, Bryant is the new emperor of China.
Bryant gets the loudest cheers in pre-game introductions. Fans chant "MVP!" when he's at the free throw line. Late in Saturday's rout of Spain as he sat on the bench, they started chanting "Kobe! Kobe!"
As teammate Carmelo Anthony joked, "Kobe might want to think about moving here."
On this, his fifth trip to China, he's protected by the U.S. team's security personnel. On past trips where every place he went had not already been secured, he would have needed the People's Liberation Army.
"Last year when I came here, I lost an earring," Bryant said. "A kid found it on the floor and held onto it for three hours and came back and gave it back to me. That's crazy."
At home, he was always overshadowed by Shaquille O'Neal before Bryant fell from grace after his arrest on a sexual assault charge in 2003.
In China, though, Bryant's career dovetailed with the rise of interest in the NBA, and the perception was different. He wasn't just the star they saw on television winning three titles. As hard-driving in business as basketball, he was also the one they saw in person on promotional tours.
"Kobe has a relationship with the Chinese fans," says U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski.
For Bryant, it is just the latest thing to go right in a commercial comeback like none ever seen before. It used to be axiomatic in advertising that if you lost commercial cachet, it was gone forever. Bryant was dropped by all of his commercial partners except Nike. Now he is the reigning MVP, closing in on a gold medal, the most beloved Western figure in the greatest market of them all.
His jersey outsells all others in China, including that of Yao Ming.
Bryant's impact on court is undeniable. Without him, the young U.S. players were sliced and diced by Greece in 2006. With him, they look like the second coming of the team that coach Bob Knight lashed to greatness in 1984.
"Yeah, he surprised me," Krzyzewski says. "We knew he could defend real well, [but] he can't do all that for 110 straight games [in the NBA] and still be asked to scored 30 points. But in this, he could. . . . When your two best players buy into the concept of defense, that helps you a lot."
Bryant watched the loss to Greece - which aired at 3 a.m. - as point guard Vassilis Spannoulis bedeviled the U.S. team on pick-and-rolls and decided then and there what this team needed.
"I felt like that's what we were kind of missing as far as European guards, big guards, tearing us up a little bit," Bryant said. "I wanted to come in and say, 'You know what, I don't have to score 30-some points and do dunks, all that stuff; I want to come in and lock some people some up.' "