NEW YORK -- Pleased with his play on the court, Nike is ready to test Kobe Bryant's ability as a salesman.
Bryant's first televised ad with the shoe company debuted during NBA programming Thursday night, more than 2½ years after he signed an endorsement deal with the sneaker company in the summer of 2003. Soon after he struck the deal with Nike, Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado.
The ad coincides with the release of the Zoom Kobe I sneaker Saturday and seeks to capitalize on Bryant's renewed popularity. Interest in the Los Angeles Lakers star has been the on rise this season, especially after his 81-point game last month, the second-highest total in NBA history.
"Kobe's inclusion in marketing and promotional material is an acknowledgment of his elevated level of sports performance," Nike said in a statement.
The commercial shows Bryant shooting free throws, then doing other drills. His voice narrates, 'Love me or hate me, it's one or the other. Always has been. Hate my game, my swagger. Hate my fadeaway, my hunger. Hate that I'm a veteran. A champion. Hate that. Hate it with all your heart. And hate that I'm loved, for the exact same reasons."
The theme of the ad seems to play off the fact that Bryant, though long one of the NBA's best players, has never enjoyed total acceptance from fans.
"I expect the same reaction I normally get -- some people will
like it and some people won't," Bryant said. "It's truthful. I
think it's important to do ads that are not as we know ads are
usually done. This one is one that is true to form. It is real, it
is honest. We're not selling an image. It's not like we're trying
to polish my image or clean it up."
He was booed near his hometown when the 2002 All-Star game was in Philadelphia, and was viewed by many as the driving force behind the breakup of the Lakers because of his feud with Shaquille O'Neal.
His image took a major hit when he was accused of sexual assault by a woman in June 2003 at a Colorado hotel. The criminal trial fell apart when the woman refused to testify, and a settlement was reached in the civil suit.
Though Bryant lost endorsements with McDonald's and Nutella as a result, Nike kept him under contract, though the company didn't use him until a print ad last summer.
"He's part of the Nike group of athletes that endorse our product," said Rodney Knox, Nike's director of communications for basketball. "There's been no change. Our relationship with Kobe has remained intact."
Bryant was asked recently how he thought he was viewed by fans.
"I think they're seeing a person who's determined, who's focused on being one of the best basketball players and is trying to elevate his team to get back to that elite status," he said. "Despite whatever challenges, mountains and obstacles were in his way, he's been able to overcome it and continue to battle through it.
"And everybody has their own crosses to bear. Mine isn't different from anybody else's here but we all have our crosses. The point is to pick that cross up and carry it."