I was in Shanghai, a week after the end of the Olympics, when I decided on my pick for Sportsman of the Year. I was touring an old neighborhood that served as a last refuge for European Jews during World War II, and the student/guide who was pointing out historical artifacts began asking me about the experience of covering the Olympics.
Had I seen Yao Ming up close? she asked. So close I couldn't see him above waist level. Had I talked to LeBron James? Very briefly, I had. Her eyes began to sparkle as she ran down the list of USA Basketball stars. Yes, I had seen Chris Paul, no, didn't talk to him. Yes, I talked to Dwight Howard. Then she paused, nervously, and I could tell she had one more. "You talked to Kobe?" Well, I asked him one question, if that counts. "You talked to Kobe!"
The next thing I knew, a half-dozen Chinese teenagers were huddled around me in the balcony of a 1940s Shanghai synagogue, the apparent venue for my impromptu press conference. Yes, he liked playing against China. No, he doesn't look that much like Michael Jordan. Yes, I do think he visited the Great Wall. No, I don't think the Lakers will win the championship.
At this point, with his halo having enveloped me by virtue of having asked him one question, it occurred to me that Kobe Bryant had probably become the most famous, and perhaps most beloved, athlete in the world -- and that's not even to mention the column in China Daily during the Olympics that argued that the Chinese concept of a beautiful black person is centered on Bryant. I didn't get a single question about the dropped sexual assault case from 2004, or the parking lot video that captured Kobe railing against teammate Andrew Bynum and general manager Mitch Kupchak last summer, or the coarse demands on Stephen A. Smith's radio show to be traded prior to last season.
Perhaps that news hadn't traveled. Or, perhaps, like the Redeem Team he captained to the gold medal, Bryant himself has been restored, at least to some degree, both off the court and on it. Since the sexual assault case was dropped, Bryant has kept his personal life out of the tabloids. Then, last season, he finally proved himself in the absence of Shaq, with an MVP season that carried to the finals a team that hadn't won a playoff series since the Diesel's departure three seasons earlier. Plus, in a display of maturity remarkable among pro athletes, Kobe did it under Phil Jackson, who had called him "uncoachable" in his book about the 2003-04 season, a barb far more calculated and financially profitable than Bryant's parking lot-vent about Bynum and Kupchak.
As if the MVP season wasn't enough, Bryant put off surgery on a torn ligament in his pinkie to lead the U.S. to gold in Beijing, where he delighted the Chinese fans from the first game, with his half dozen dunks against the host team, to the last game against Spain, when his 13 fourth-quarter points helped secure the gold. By the end of the Olympics, Bryant had done something almost unimaginable: He had overshadowed Yao Ming on the court, and was drawing comparisons to the great Xiao Dan of the Red Oxen.
I nominate Kobe Bryant as Sportsman of the Year, because this year he became a global symbol in a globalized sports world. A lot of great American players grew up wanting to be like Mike, and we might be wise to expect an influx of Chinese players in the generation to come, many of whom got their start trying to be like Kobe.