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Still, Nike did more or less hide Bryant for almost three years, launching their first Kobe shoe, the Zoom Kobe I, only this February. The decision to come out with a Bryant model, Greene says, was not motivated by market research or focus group testing. "In terms of Kobe's endorsement value, we always knew that his play on the court was going to be the motivating factor."
V. THE HATERS
For an athlete to refurbish his image, he needs to advance through a set of concentric circles--the home fan, the basketball fan, the nonfan. Even after Eagle, Bryant remained in the good graces of most Lakers acolytes, particularly the Hollywood crowd, which was always more enthralled with Bryant's graceful acrobatics than with Shaquille O'Neal's brute force. Staples became, in effect, Bryant's personal decontamination chamber. This season, mostly by dint of his play, Bryant is winning back basketball fans outside of L.A. In 2006 he was the second-leading All-Star vote getter, behind only Yao Ming, who is always buoyed by an international voting bloc.
Yet even within the game, there is a reluctance to fully embrace Bryant's virtuosity. His 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on Jan. 22 drew, at best, ambivalent reviews. Sniffed Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, "It's remarkable, the execution and the efficiency, but we've got a lot of guys in this league, if they took 70 shots, they'd score a lot of points." (For the record, Bryant took only 46 shots.)
Here's a laugh: New Jersey's Vince Carter expressed concern for the underlying message sent by the four-score-and-one. "The only bad thing about it is, young kids, whose minds are easily warped, are going to think, Ohhh, I am going to go out there and do it instead of [putting] the team concept first." This is the same Vince Carter who once wore his iPod through a layup line, all but extorted a trade from Toronto to New Jersey and loves to hoist fallaway 30-footers.
More damning, among the general public, Bryant's Q rating--which measures a celebrity's recognition and likability--remains subterranean. In an extensive poll regarding 1,750 celebrities conducted last month, Bryant achieved a positive Q-rating score of 12 and a negative score of 47. The average score was 17/25. Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the conniving Apprentice contestant, ranked dead last, scoring 3/82. Bryant was in the company of Vince McMahon, Robert Blake, and even Barry Bonds.
"Kobe is easily in the bottom fifth," says Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, the Long Island--based company that measures Q ratings. "It's not enough to have a great game or lead the league in scoring to overcome the disgrace that's been heaped upon him. His negative is four times his positive. That should scare the hell out of [any potential sponsor]. You won't sell batteries or peanut butter or Ball Park hot dogs or even Gatorade with that ranking."
In 2002 Reebok executive Henry (Que) Gaskins, then Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson's adviser, memorably suggested that Bryant's skills outpaced his marketability to shoe companies because he didn't have any street cred.
Todd Boyd, a professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television and author of Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture, is more harsh. "Saying Kobe has street cred is like saying Dick Cheney has street cred." Boyd says that Bryant's image problems in part stem from an ambiguous racial identity. "If Kobe had been a white American player, people would have seen him as someone visibly different from the NBA population and accepted him as an individual who didn't fit the culture. Well, he's African-American, but as far as his class and disposition, he's not what people normally associate with NBA players. Then he gets charged with this crime, and suddenly [he seems] like everybody else.... I honestly can't name any African-Americans not professing to be Lakers fans who like Kobe."
VI. THE LAST SHOT