NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death triggered an outpouring of grief on Monday in China, where he was beloved by fans, with a hashtag of the news drawing more than a billion views.
Nine people were killed in a helicopter crash including Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Los Angeles officials confirmed on Sunday.
Basketball is arguably the most popular sport in China, and Bryant — a five-time NBA champion who blogged for Chinese internet giant SINA in 2009 — was among the first American stars to garner a large fan base in the country.
He remained popular in China after his retirement in 2016, frequently engaging via social media with Chinese fans.
Despite China’s preoccupation with a viral epidemic crisis, the hashtag “Kobe passed away” was viewed more than 1.2 billion times on popular Chinese social media platform Weibo, and sparked more than a million posts within hours of the news.
“Kobe is not a basketball star. He is my life coach,” said one post.
“This is fake, fake, I can’t believe it,” said another.
One user wrote that they wept upon hearing of the tragedy: “My whole youth is all about you! So sad!”
In Bryant’s final post on his Weibo account on Friday, he sent Lunar New Year greetings to his Chinese followers.
“I wish you happiness, health, and inner magic to achieve more success in the upcoming year of the mouse,” Bryant said.
The NBA came under fierce criticism and boycott threats in China last October after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted his support for demonstrations in Hong Kong against Beijing’s influence in the semi-autonomous city.
But that seems to have done little to dampen Chinese support for the league, especially with China’s own national team giving fans little to cheer.