On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers’ torturous season suffered another calamity when star guard Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon, ending one of his most impressive statistical seasons on a down note. Though the 34-year-old Bryant has his detractors, his work ethic and ability to battle through injuries are legendary, moving opposing fans and Lakers supporters alike to “#PrayForKobe” on Twitter.
Similarly, Kobe (or 科比, as Chinese folks know him) was a hot topic over the weekend on Chinese social media. Bryant is one of the most well-known athletes in the country, with his numerous ambassadorial efforts to China earning him an adoring following and leading some (okay, his financial advisor) to call him a “one-man State Department.” (If anyone can bring an end to the cyberwar between China and the United States, it’s Kobe: just listen to the crowd go insane each time he “scores” in this ridiculous Chinese celebrity game from last summer.)
The anguished wails were especially loud on Sina Weibo. On Saturday, 科比 and #科比恐跟腱撕裂# reached as high as #6 on Weibo’s trending topics list, just ahead of Psy and behind the Hong Kong Film Awards. Weibo also pitched in to spread awareness by displaying a banner ad — “Kobe suffers injury; possibly an Achilles tear” — on each member’s homepage, as if this were some national disaster which merited breaking news updates:
Weibo also set up a special Kobe-injury-related portal for users to post their thoughts and to wish Kobe a speedy recovery. However, a large group of mourners and well-wishers gathered directly on Kobe’s Weibo page. Despite only having posted 14 times since opening the account in February and only in English, Kobe has amassed over 11.7 million followers who leave comments in English as well as Chinese. On Saturday afternoon L.A. time (middle of the night Sunday in China), Kobe distributed his first post-injury weibo, an image of him prepping for surgery that he’d tweeted on Twitter earlier in the day. Within 24 hours, more than 45,000 comments were made and the photo was forwarded more than 70,000 times (though these numbers shouldn’t be treated as gospel; there’s a ton of comment spam and no doubt thousands of bot accounts re-posted it as well).
To get a sense of what people said in the comments, I ran a script that downloaded and parsed all 45,000-plus comments. I ran it through some language detection libraries, which indicated that nearly half the comments were written in English — an extremely high number compared to typical Weibo posts, an indication that perhaps the commenters hoped Kobe himself would actually read their messages. The “pray for Kobe” vibe was also strong on Weibo, with more than 1,842 comments containing the word “pray” and another 932 containing the phrase “God bless.” Other common phrases were “Come back soon” and “best wishes,” but of particular interest were comments that identified Kobe as a “hero” and credited him with inspiring them or introducing them to basketball:
- Thank you for teaching me to understand what the perseverance is . Thank you for giving a nice memory in my youth . Best wishes for you , my forever hero .
- Thank you for bringing me into the basketball world, so many years, I grew up with. Kobe Bryant, you are a hero, Achilles tendon rupture for you, nothing, everything will be the last, you’ll come back!
- Hey kobe,you are a realman in my mind,I see your games all the way.Because of you, I know NBA,because of you,I love this game betteryizhi.You make me know the importance of hardwork,you make me know such a strong will for winning.I will never be disappointed when I watch you game
- Kobe, I began to watch your game since you first entered the league, I began to love your game since your second year as a Laker. I followed your amazing career. I really hope that the world has the chance to see you holding that trophy yet another time. Be well, please!
- Although I was only 12 years old, but I see you play with dad when I was small, kobe Bryant, without you, my childhood is not perfect.
- I don’t like U, but U deserve everyone’s respect. U r the best of best in this kingdom, the star of stars in this ground. Thanks for all your big times, all your passion and fights for this game. I love this game, we shout “Beat LA”,as we can’t live without it ! Wish U come back!
- I don.t.watch basketball. i don.t know why so many people crazy about you.now i know why!you are their god and give them faith.you are the one who they want to be.you don,t forget smile and joke when suffer those.you never feel defeated.and i know you won,t.@KobeBryant
- I know you’re a fighter, but take care of yourself at the same time. If ya injured we all will be sad . Remember there are billions of fans worried about ya including me. You’re a amazing, you’re the reason I started watching NBA, and you’re be the only reason why I stop.
- A GREAT MAN,I learned much from you,about insist、never give up、assiduous and so on,so I never give up,I learning hard I don’t know how to express the respect to you!my English is poor,maybe there are some mistakes in this paragraph.waiting for you back next year!
The Chinese-language messages which make up the other half are similarly sincere. Grief and encouragement abound, with 3,580 instances of “加油” (fight on), 2,011 of “早日康复” (get well soon), and 266 containing “伤心” (broken-hearted); and in the clearest expression of sadness, more than a 1,000 “蜡烛” (candles) emoji icons were lit. Again, the most fascinating comments are those which talk about Kobe as an inspiration and his effect on their upbringing:
- You are the only superstar athlete that I like. I don’t like basketball much, but I like watching Lakers games. When I was still young, my Dad told me you scored 81 points in a single game; from then on I thought that you were so good/handsome. You’ll be ok. (你是我唯一喜欢的一个球星了吧。我没有多喜欢篮球，可是我喜欢看湖人的球赛。在我还小的时候，我爸跟我说你单场就得了81分，我就觉得你好帅。会好的)
- My English isn’t good enough! I’m only able to use Chinese to express my heart’s feelings! Without your shadow on the basketball court I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch basketball games. Your injury really caused my heart to fill with worry. Yesterday, during your game, you tumbled again and again, you got up again and again, and when I saw your anxious expression I silently prayed and hoped that you’d would be fine, but … your performance really inspired people! Fight on! My idol! We love you! (我英语不够好！我只能用中文发表一下心里的感受！篮球比赛场上没有你的身影我不知道我会不会继续看比赛我都不知道，你的受伤我心里真的揪心，昨天你的比赛一次次跌倒，一次次的爬起来，看着你那揪心的表情，心里默默祈祷希望你一切安好，但是……你的比赛真的让人鼓舞 ！加油！偶像！我们爱你！)
- Before long, a flying hero no longer able to fly, a Black Mamba unable to penetrate, when Kobe isn’t able to shoot as well, isn’t able to dominate and hit buzzer-beaters, when the former king of Los Angeles sits forlornly on the sidelines, we ought not forget, we ought to applaud him, give him our respect because he was with us throughout our youth. We can only shut up. Heroes are only temporary, but legends are for life! I love you master. Forever young! (过不了多久，当飞侠不再飞翔，当黑曼巴步履瞒珊的艰难突破，当科比不再不讲理的投篮，不再霸气的绝杀，当昔日的洛城之王孤寂的坐在场边，不要忘记，给他掌声，给他尊重，因为他，陪我们度过青春。我们能做的只有闭嘴。英雄只是一时的，但传奇是一世的！爱你，老大，永远！)
- Iverson and Kobe, you’ll both be forever young in my heart. Iverson already retired long ago, and after Kobe retires I won’t be able to watch American basketball anymore. For many years I never cared about sports in this way. . . . When I have kids, no matter if they’re boys or girls, I’ll tell them the story the same way. . . (艾弗森和科比，是会永远在我心里了，艾弗森已经退很久了，等科比退了，我就不会再看美职蓝了。我从来无所谓这么多年看体育如此 . . . . 到我有了孩子，无论男孩女孩，我一样会讲述他们的故事. . .)
Reading through these incredibly earnest and heartfelt messages (you can go through all of them here in this spreadsheet I’ve uploaded), one is reminded of the huge impact Kobe has had on people who don’t speak his language and who have only ever connected with him through their computers or televisions. With these English comments — poor as some of them may be — and Chinese messages, they are expressing to their hero — and explaining to themselves — just how much Kobe means to them. Even for someone like me, who has never really been a Kobe fan, clicking through these messages warms my heart. Love him or hate him, Kobe is one of the few people able to move cynical Internet users around the world to tears and joy.