- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

Kobe Bryant is seemingly courting a date with redemption, starting with a Nike advertisement that appeared in the pages of Sports Illustrated this month.

Bryant became the pariah of Madison Avenue two summers ago after his extramarital dalliance with a woman from Colorado that led to a charge of sexual assault and a settlement.

He became equally suspect in the NBA after running both Shaquille O’Neal and the Zen master out of Los Angeles and leading the Lakers to a desultory 34-48 season.

The pitch addresses the basketball-related charges accompanying Bryant.

“You failed,” it reads.

“One-thousand made jumpers” is the counter.

And on it goes.

“You’re garbage,” it reads.

“One-hundred made free throws” is the counter.

The theme is that hard work conquers all, which is something only a desk-bound ad writer could imagine, for hard work is only one aspect of the NBA framework of success.

Bryant can work himself into utter fatigue between now and the start of the season, but no amount of work on his part is going to turn Kwame Brown into a mentally tough performer.

Memo to Kwame: So you were traumatized by the tag-team antics of Doug Collins and Michael Jordan. Wait until Bryant starts doing a number on your head. Count yourself lucky if he passes the ball to you once a month.

The return of the Zen master is undoubtedly an attempt to undo some of the Bryant-inspired damage.

Bryant learned a difficult lesson last season, and it is one likely to be repeated in the season ahead.

No matter how hard Bryant has labored to be the next Jordan — right down to mimicking Jordan’s mannerisms — Bryant has shown himself to be an unsatisfying imitation of the genuine article. He is much closer to being the next Vince Carter than the next Jordan.

When it comes to the public relations side of the NBA business, Bryant is equally deficient.

For the most part, Jordan rarely let his worst off-court habits trickle into the newspapers. Although Jordan loves the energy of the night a whole lot more than Bryant, he has been able to preserve the illusion of the straight arrow.

You think Jordan ever would have found himself immersed in the Colorado mess? Something tells us arrangements could have been made to make that unseemly matter go away long before it did.

But that is just another telling difference between Bryant and Jordan.

Not that Jordan has not made miscalculations in his career.

Who is that doddering fellow shuffling around on Fun Street? Why, that is your boss, Michael. You best remember that he signs the checks. Not Bob Johnson. Not Ted Leonsis. And certainly not Charles Oakley.

Bryant went from the Italian-speaking, fresh-faced wunderkind to the tacky, icky, tattoo-wearing guest on Jerry Springer in an instant. He even bought a zillion-dollar rock to assuage his wife’s hurt and played the bad man on Karl Malone in defense of his wife’s purported honor.

Yet if Nike sees an opportunity to rehabilitate Bryant, we are obligated to defer to the company’s marketers.

Nike, after all, is in the shoe business to make money, which it does with stunning efficiency.

Yes, Nike concedes, Bryant is an aloof ball hog who is resistant to coaching, who has the personality of a pampered diva.

But, darn it, he is putting in the extra hours in a gym to rise again in the NBA.

Not that anyone ever has suggested Bryant was allergic to improving his basketball skills, stamina and strength.

Consider this to be the beginning of the third act of Bryant’s career after his first act as Jordan’s heir apparent and his second as an NBA cliche who was only missing the seven illegitimate children by 30 women from his portfolio.

The ad will not be worth squat if Bryant and the Zen master butt heads anew.

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