• Kobe Bryant was immensely popular in China
  • Bryant won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  • Kobe, along with Michael Jordan and Yao Ming, helped to populaeize basketball in China

China, already dealing with a worsening public health crisis in the form of a deadly new coronavirus, took the time to mourn the death of former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, who died Sunday morning in California when a helicopter he flew on with his daughter and seven others, was one of the most popular foreign athletes in China.

Reminiscences of Bryant has dominated Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

“Kobe is dead” was the top trending hashtag on Weibo on Monday. Chinese basketball star Yi Jianlian wrote on the platform in a direct address to Bryant: “We both suffered a fractured finger. I rested for a month and a half, and you did not rest for a single day. Since then I learned from you what persistence meant.”

A commenter named ZhanHao wrote on Weibo: “For our generation, our memories of the NBA begin with [Michael] Jordan, and move through Kobe and Yao Ming. You were a part of our youth. Already missing the bright sun of Kobe. Go well.”

Chinese social media users also praised Bryant’s legendary work ethic, using the hashtag “eternally 4 a.m.” a reference to Bryant’s early morning workouts.

Judy Seto, Bryant’s physical therapist, said his popularity in China was “like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“When we went to Europe, they weren’t chasing him. He didn’t feel like he couldn’t go out. People would still recognize him, things like that, but in China, it’s crazy,” Seto recounted.

Bryant visited China almost annually since 1998 and once said the NBA-crazy country “almost feels like a second home now.” The lifetime Laker promoted both the NBA and his personal brand in China.

Bryant won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

In 2009, he introduced the Kobe Bryant China Fund which pays for youth programs in China.

Even after Bryant retired from the NBA he remained a huge draw for Chinese fans.

China's state media also posted online tributes to Bryant. "From primary school to university, he accompanied the youth of countless people, and evoked the love for basketball among many young Chinese people," read a Weibo post by People's Daily, the newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party. “Your fearlessly striving spirit, whether in basketball or in life, is worthy of remembrance.”

Bryant endeared himself to Chinese fans even more by communicating with them on social media where he was fondly called “xiao fei xia” or the "little flying warrior.”

On his final posting on Weibo, where he had 9 million followers, Bryant wished the Chinese a happy new year: “"I wish you happiness, health, and inner magic to achieve more success in the upcoming year of the mouse.”

Although the NBA came under heavy criticism in China last fall after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters, players like Bryant and current Laker superstar Lebron James remain hugely popular in China.

The South China Morning Post wrote of Bryant’s sudden passing: “At a time when China needs all the positive and understanding foreign voices it can muster, they have lost a kindred spirit with a huge global profile. They lost someone who had an insatiable curiosity and profound respect for their culture. They lost someone whose bond grew stronger over time. You can’t replace a Kobe Bryant in China. You can only honor his legacy.”

In Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted: “Kobe inspired a generation of young Taiwanese basketball players, and his legacy will live on through those who loved him.”