BELL GARDENS, Calif. – Kobe Bryant is renowned for carefully executed game plans that tilt the score in his favor. So it seems fitting that he would develop an affinity for a country that is doing much the same thing on the geopolitical stage.
Bryant is taking that affection for China — and its goodwill toward him — to cast himself as a bridge between East and West through a campaign of philanthropic contributions, promotional activities and cross-cultural exchanges.
"They welcomed me with open arms and have been very positive about wanting to learn the game of basketball," Bryant said Monday, after shooting hoops with middle school-aged students in a Chinese culture initiative for a program called After-School All-Stars.
The Lakers shooting guard's charitable foundation helps fund the initiative, which includes Mandarin language lessons, Chinese cooking courses and martial arts classes. He also makes occasional visits to the basketball courts of participating schools, like the one at Bell Gardens Intermediate School in southeast Los Angeles County.
About 150 students at five schools participate in the language and culture program, said Shannon Mayock, a spokeswoman for After-School All-Stars, which was established by Arnold Schwarzenegger to provide extra academic support to disadvantaged students before he became California's governor.
Mayock said the program hopes to expand its Chinese offerings to additional campuses over the next few years.
She declined to specify how much the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation contributes, citing a contractual obligation.
Bryant's fondness for China has been reciprocated; his is the National Basketball Association's top-selling jersey in China, and millions of Chinese viewers tuned in to the reality show "Kobe's Disciples," which aired on that country's most popular TV station.
NBA has recognized that popularity as the association seeks to expand its business in China. Along with the 2008 formation of NBA China, an independent entity that conducts the league's China-based businesses, stoking Kobe-mania is a big part of the association's business plan.
He was featured prominently, for example, in the NBA-sponsored installation at the 2010 Shanghai Expo's USA Pavilion.
Nike Inc. has also been both an enabler and beneficiary of Bryant's success over the Pacific. The company uses his image widely in its Chinese advertisements and at its retail stores, and it has for years sponsored training clinics featuring the star at Chinese schools and community centers.
This week, Nike paid for 10 Chinese middle-school students to visit the United States, where they joined After-School All-Stars participants at the Bell Gardens event. When Bryant stepped in front of a video camera for interviews after a practice session with the kids, a pair of special "China Edition" Nike sneakers was left prominently in the frame.
Nike spokeswoman Jacie Prieto-Lopez said the company's relationship with Bryant gives them an instant connection to China's massive population of basketball fans.
"He helps us resonate with that core consumer," she said.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consultancy SportsCorp, said Bryant seems to have developed his bond with China in the aftermath of his arrest in Colorado on sexual assault charges in 2003.
Although that case was dismissed, U.S. fans at the time lost some of their enthusiasm for the rising star, and many sponsors sought to distance themselves from him. But in China, Bryant's popularity grew unabated, reaching a crescendo with his appearance in the U.S. team in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Ganis said.
"He was viewed as the leader of that team," Ganis said.
Susan Jain, a professor of Chinese language instruction at University of California, Los Angeles, said Bryant is performing an invaluable service by promoting familiarity with China as the country grows in stature and influence.
"I think it offers some wonderful opportunities for these kids," Jain said. "We'll be preparing the next generation to jump into the work force and use the language and culture."
Bryant, however, stressed that his interest wasn't merely to push Chinese language and cultural literacy.
He said more important was that young Americans become familiar with some place — any place — beyond their national borders, something he learned to value while going to school in Italy, where his father played basketball after retiring from the NBA.
"I think it's important for kids to kind of learn more than just the world that is around them," he said.