- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

It’s hard to imagine that a 28-year-old — even someone as famous and who has been in the spotlight as long as Kobe Bryant — has found the need to reinvent himself. Maybe that’s not quite the word. But there is little doubt that the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar has made some major alterations, on and off the court, improving both his game and his stature with the public.

In the last three years, after the widely reported, minutely detailed incident in Colorado that resulted in sexual assault charges and the subsequent dismissal of those charges; after his public spat with Shaquille O’Neal that resulted in O’Neal’s trade to the Miami Heat following three Lakers championships; after the publication of then-former Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s book that resulted in more negative press, Bryant has sanded the rough edges from his image and shaped a new identity in this, his 11th season.

While still not a one-man marketing entity as before, all seems well again with Bryant, whose Lakers play the Wizards tomorrow at Verizon Center. He is back in good graces, for the most part, with his coach, teammates and NBA fans, although not necessarily sponsors and the general sporting public. That likely will take a little more time.

If it all seemed like too much, too soon for Bryant, who made a relatively seamless transition to the pros from high school, it probably was. Real life eventually interrupted the fairy tale. He never was convicted in a courtroom, but the court of public opinion offered a resounding guilty verdict. Coming back from that would be the biggest rebound of his career.

“You know, there’s that old term about a heart-to-heart meeting with Jesus,” said Jackson, who returned as coach of the Lakers last season after a one-year absence. “I think he realized, I think, at one point in his life, he couldn’t force his way through the world, and there are certain things and ways you have to go about doing things that are meted out through karmic action, and he just takes the right path now.”

Whether it’s karma, the application of Jackson’s Zen teachings and practices or simply figuring things out, or all of that, Bryant appears to be improved in several ways. The 6-foot-6 guard is shooting less and his scoring is down from a league-best 35.4 points a game last year to a still-robust 28.8. But the eight-time All-Star, who recently became the youngest player to reach 18,000 points, is passing more, getting teammates involved, communicating effectively. He is unquestionably the team leader.

“He has more confidence in us,” Lakers guard Smush Parker said. “He definitely trusts us more to run the offense. He’s just a better teammate.”

Bryant’s jersey, bearing a new number, 24 (replacing his old No. 8), is again No. 1 in sales according to the NBA. The last time that happened was in 2003, before the sexual assault accusation. He and Jackson have patched things up and the Lakers, 28-18 going into tonight’s game at Indiana, are one of the league’s more surprising teams.

Except for a one-game suspension Tuesday, which surprised many, Bryant has stayed out of trouble and assumed a more mature, responsible identity. Whether it’s sincere or calculated, it seems to be working.

“I tell you what, if there’s a blueprint about how someone rebuilds his image,” ESPN commentator and former NBA player Greg Anthony said. “You look at where Kobe was, falling out of the public eye, being vilified, I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody with the transformation he’s had.

“The only way to accomplish that is to mature and grow,” Anthony added. “I think what’s transpired during the past year has been pleasing both as a fan of the game and as someone who has tremendous admiration for the young man.”

Don Hinchey, vice president of communications for the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing firm, said he knew Bryant would have a difficult time restoring his credibility after he got into trouble.

“My sense was that he would have to do certain things to restore his image,” Hinchey said. “He would have to walk the straight and narrow. He would have to engage in the community in some way. He would have to perform on the court. He seems to have done all these things.”

Jackson, meanwhile, sides with sincerity.

“A lot of it is support from his teammates, and a lot of it is doing the right thing at the right time,” he said Tuesday night in New York, where Bryant was absent because of the suspension. “A lot of these kids that we have in this game take shortcuts in their lives and it’s a tough situation. He’s a great example of a player that’s had a problem and turned the corner and become a model person for the NBA.”

Lakers guard Aaron McKie, who played at Temple University in Philadelphia and knew Bryant when he was a Philly high school player, said Bryant “has become a lot more accessible to his fans, he’s out in the community a lot more and people see his face more. Those types of things help.”

Jackson’s “model person” assessment of Bryant took a slight hit, however, when the NBA unexpectedly suspended Bryant the day of the Knicks game.

Playing in L.A. on Sunday against San Antonio, Bryant launched a fourth-quarter shot that was blocked by Manu Ginobili. As he followed through, Bryant flailed his arm and struck Ginobili in the face. Ginobili went down, but no foul was called and that seemed to be the end of it.

Jackson and Bryant called the play an accident. The league believed otherwise, suspending Bryant and denying an appeal. Jackson said he was “astonished.” Bryant, who might, in fact, have been frustrated by having his shot blocked, said earlier on Tuesday that he was “shocked,” “blown away” and “extremely disappointed.” He sat in his hotel room as the Lakers lost to the Knicks.

Back in uniform the next night, Bryant took out his ire on the undermanned Boston Celtics. He made seven 3-pointers and scored 43 points, to go with eight rebounds and eight assists, in a 111-98 Lakers’ victory. Even on the road, in a locale notoriously hostile to Bryant, chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P,” could be heard. “I felt like I was finally able to run out in the yard and just run a little wild,” he told reporters.

Jackson’s book, “The Last Season,” came out in the fall of 2004 after he stepped down from coaching. In it, he described the difficulties of the previous season, including the tension between O’Neal and Bryant. Jackson was especially critical of Bryant, about whom others had used such words as selfish and arrogant. He couldn’t get along with Shaq. Everybody gets along with Shaq. Among other things, Jackson called Bryant “uncoachable.”

Since then, the pair has more than reconciled; they have formed a mutual admiration society. Peace and harmony now reign.

“That’s why I came back to coaching,” Jackson said. “Kobe and the Lakers. I knew he had a good heart, a good cause and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to meet the demands of this game.”

Jackson tried to “build a relationship with Kobe over the last two years, one that’s solid,” he said. “I took him into my confidence about what we wanted to do as a pair, how to be a leader, and he thinks like that. He’s responded very well.”

In an interview with a Boston Globe reporter before he torched the Celtics, Bryant called Jackson “a genius.”

He also discussed his desire to win another championship by helping to make his teammates better — a concept previously not usually associated with Bryant.

“It’s got to be about us getting better and not having me be a crutch for us as a team,” he told the Globe. “We can’t rely on me when we’re struggling. We’ve got to stick with moving the ball.”

He added, “I’m the older brother now. They’re looking to me, and I have to be conscious of that. I can’t worry about myself and how I’m feeling.”

But if the Lakers, the league and fans believe in his makeover, it’s a spottier proposition with corporate America and the general public. Bryant lost endorsement contracts with Coca-Cola and other companies after the Colorado incident and he has yet to get them back. But he does remain with Nike. He is part of the new “Second Coming” campaign and last January, after he scored 81 points in a game, he taped his first Nike spot since 2003.

“I think his image has seen some restoration,” said Scott Sanford, senior client director for the Davie-Brown talent agency, which advises companies on the marketability of celebrities. “But I’m not sure it has carried over into the brand world as it has the media and the general NBA audience. I think brands are still gonna scrutinize his past continuously and I don’t know how quickly he’ll be able to get past that.”

Davie-Brown is the creator of the DBI score, which measures the overall recognition, trustworthiness and personal and sales appeal of 1,500 celebrities and athletes. As of late November, Bryant’s score in the “awareness” category was way higher than any NBA player’s except for O’Neal, which means that people have heard of him. But apparently for the wrong reasons. His scores in “appeal,” “trust” and “endorsement [credibility]” are much lower than those of the other NBA stars, including Shaq, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and even the controversial Allen Iverson.

“There’s no doubt Kobe will not be on that same plane he was in 2000, 2001 and 2002 when he still had a squeaky clean image,” Sanford said. “His bickerings with Shaq and Phil did not hamper his ability to be marketable. Where he took the hit was what happened in Colorado. It made companies distance themselves from Kobe.”

Bryant also comes up short in another barometer of public perception, the “Q score,” although the last surveys were taken 10 months ago. According to figures provided by Henry Schaefer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, which produces the Q score, Bryant had an 18 score with sports fans in March 2006, compared to 27 three years before that. He hit bottom in 2005 with a 14. Michael Jordan leads all basketball players, active or not, with a 50. The top active player was Tim Duncan with a 30.

Among NBA fans specifically, Bryant’s most recent Q score was 35, well above the average of 21. “But there are a lot of players above him right now,” Schaefer said. In the “general population” last fall, Bryant’s positive Q score was 12 and his negative score was 46, according to Schaefer.

Explaining Bryant’s jersey popularity, “NBA fans are like a niche fan group,” Schaefer said. “There doesn’t seem to be a following among the public.”

He added, “It looks like he’s on a slow road back to regaining what he lost. He still has a long way to go. Just from our experience in tracking these types of things, we’ve found that sports personalities who address negative social issues more immediately tend to minimize the impact. Which he didn’t do. But he seems to be getting it now.”

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