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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Updated: July 28, 12:15 PM ET
Kobe, Nike back in business

By Eric Neel
Page 2

Kobe's back.

You might not have noticed, because his entrance was subtle. But he's back.

Back on Madison Avenue. Back on the ad pages of a big-time magazine.

Earlier this month, a little more than two years after he was first accused of sexual assault in Colorado, Nike reintroduced Bryant as a "Just do it" pitchman.

It's a stark, striking, two-page spread (appearing first in the July 11-18 issue of Sports Illustrated) shot in black and white, Kobe's profile on the right side and a call-and-response list of his perceived failings and his nose-to-the-grindstone response to those perceived failings on the left.

Kobe Bryant
Here's Nike's new Kobe Bryant ad, appearing in print.
Past your prime.

Box jumps x 3.

Ball hog.

100m run x 10.

You're garbage.

100 made free throws.

Pitch-pefect. The text knows there's work to be done. It declares itself, from the get-go, as a kind of rehabilitation, or at the very least, as a kind of acknowledgement.

Kobe's not Mickey Mantle selling Haggars, or Anita Bryant pouring orange juice here. He's not even the young Kobe Bryant smiling his way through a Sprite pitch. This isn't that (relatively) innocent time -- not in advertising, not in the world of sports, not in Kobe's life and career … not anywhere, really.

Kobe's a guy with a rep now. His skeletons are jangling right along with him, not a closet in sight. Like Reggie Jackson a generation before him, he's a dividing line, too; half the people love him to death, and the other half would like to go "Folsom Prison Blues" on him some night, if you know what I'm saying.

The ad owns up to that with its list -- a smart move that gives the viewer credit for being smart, for having opinions, and for making choices. And from that place of respect, it hopes to point out, through the noise ("Prima donna," "A baby," and "Not a team player"), some more fundamental, more appealing, element of his character ("Leg curls 10 x 3," "Film review," and "Suicides x 3"). Yes, it says maybe Kobe was entangled with Shaq's unhappy departure and Phil's hurried exit. Yes, it says maybe Kobe took a whole lot of shots he shouldn't have. And yes, it says the Lakers were most definitely 34-48 last season. All that is true. But there's this other Kobe truth, too, it says. There's the fact that he's disciplined, focused and hard-working. There's the fact that his single-mindedness is maybe the one thing that is positively Jordanesque about him. And there's the fact, no matter what you've heard or what you think, that he's coming now to work harder and sacrifice more than ever before, in order to be good, in order to be great.

We've got a deep cultural respect for this kind of thing. It's the through line from every coal miner to every Rudy to every Ben Wallace in our world. In its muted tones and simple declaratives, the ad offers this as the point of connection with Kobe now, offers the list and the determined look in his eyes as the Bryant point of reference from this day forward. It's an Act Two move, a page turn that can't erase what's been done and said but won't disappear in the face of those things either. (Another thing sports fans and the culture at large value, by the way.)

But of course, there's a considerable risk in trying to market Kobe again. There's a good chance just his face on the page will inspire more alienation and contempt than connection, because the list on the left page doesn't include his biggest perceived failings of all. There is no mention of his adultery and no word of the charges brought against him in Colorado. Certainly Nike, Kobe and the viewers of the ad all know these things, and are all, on some level, thinking of them as shadow presences, as unspoken obstacles in Kobe's effort to begin the 2005-06 season with a new slate and a new resolve.

Regardless of how the trial turned out, unlike the slaps against his being egotistical or selfish, it seems unlikely the echoes of Eagle County can be written over with push-ups, squats and wind sprints.

It's the photograph of Kobe that acknowledges this, where the text does not. There are mug-shot echoes in the pose, an almost subliminal acknowledgement of what some of us still may be thinking of or about him. In its way, it's an incredibly bold choice on Nike's part, invoking the brand of imagery its campaign and Kobe himself want most to move away from.

But bold isn't exactly the right word. Because there isn't any bravado, no how-ya-like-me-now, in the shot or the pose. Instead, he slouches a bit at the shoulders, and sits low and somber in the frame, as if to say he's determined, yes, but humbled, too. There's a plaintiveness about it, as though it asks the viewer for clemency.

And maybe the most intriguing aspect of the photo is its use of light and dark. Kobe is bathed in shadow, from his shoulders to his temples. Only the leading edge of his face -- the eyes, mouth and nose -- are in the light. He's peeking out. He's emerging, slowly, tentatively from somewhere dark.

It's a brilliant move on Nike's part. It makes the ad, really. Because the words, the grit and the drive in the words are nothing without the subtle but unmistakable humility and reaching-out the photograph provides. The promise in those exercises -- "Lat pulldowns 10 x 4" -- is underwritten by the patience, the not-yet-back-in-your-good-graces patience, of the headshot that moves hesitantly from dark to light.

The sum total of words and picture then isn't an announcement, a return, or even an arrival. It's just a beginning. The ad (and, by extension, Kobe, one would think) isn't sure how folks will react. It anticipates, but can't quite count on, some future spread in the full light of day.

The Kobe in this ad is equal parts bad reputation and unrelenting inner drive, and equal parts regret and hope, too, if the picture tells a story. And we come upon him as he hovers there, with his eyes on the horizon, wondering how this all ends, wondering if all the hard work in the world will be enough for us to let him back in.

Eric Neel is a Page 2 columnist.