SHANGHAI — The energy inside Shanghai’s Rucker Park — an indoor basketball gym — is so high that it stands in defiance to the rain showers falling on the city. To the hundreds of fans who braved the weather to make a pilgrimage here to see LeBron James, this place at the moment is nothing less than a hoops mecca.
However, surrounded by deafening chants of “Lakers for championship,” longtime purple-and-gold supporter Yang Kun is finding himself in a cloud of dilemma.
A devout follower of Kobe Bryant since 2004, Yang is wearing a brand-new No. 23 Lakers jersey — one of only a few in the crowd. James is a man who many Black Mamba fans in China once viewed as their idol’s archenemy.
“I’m not used to it yet,” Yang said while gazing at James, who’s in town as part of his China tour sponsored by Nike.
“At first, we were not so enthusiastic about LeBron coming to L.A.” Yang said as James stands some 50 feet away at center court. “But I’m learning to accept it.”
To Yang and many who grew up watching Bryant through his prime, getting used to seeing James in a Lakers jersey is a twisting experience, fraught with internal conflict and an inescapable sense of self-betrayal.
In a nation that arguably hosts the largest number of Lakers fans in the world, the Kobe vs. LeBron battle is still being waged. Rather than a turf war between two camps of fans, it is a clash between two schools of thought, or tastes for aesthetics.
While many gravitate toward Bryant’s delicate touch to the game, as well as his intense personality, others find James’ presence as an omnipotent physical specimen more appealing. That strong appreciation for each means you may only get to pick one.
With James joining Los Angeles as a free agent this summer, many longtime fans of Bryant have a choice to make: to continue reminiscing about the days of No. 8/No. 24, or to welcome the opening of a new era led by No. 23.
“There are several camps of Kobe fans in China,” said Sway Huang, executive editor overseeing NBA coverage at Tencent, ESPN’s digital partner in China. “There are those who are loyal exclusively to Kobe, but they might not be the majority.”
Huang, a veteran NBA insider and author of a book documenting the Lakers’ history, said to those who fell for the Lakers because of Bryant, his retirement means there’s now no place to entrust their love for the game.
But for other Lakers fans, Huang said, it shouldn’t be difficult to accept James since there is no grudge necessarily held between King James and his new franchise.
“If LeBron can deliver a title to the Lakers, he will not only solidify his historic status, but also revive the glory of purple and gold. At the end, this will be a happy place for all Lakers fans.” Huang said.