Credibility has been on the side of Kobe Bryant

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

It was a resume Kobe Bryant seemingly dragged through shoe-contract negotiations like a millstone around his neck. Too wholesome. Too clean-cut. Too well-spoken. Too much the family man.

And when it came time to sign on the dotted line, Nike decided to pay $90 million for the great unknown, high school senior LeBron James, and dole out half that amount to Bryant, owner of three NBA championship rings and the admiration of millions of parents but apparently lacking in the all-important "street cred" department.

That image might have cost Bryant some endorsement dollars, but it was paying public-relations dividends Monday as the country tried to cope with the news that Bryant had been arrested for felony sexual assault in Colorado.

Reaction throughout the American sports media ranged from shock to confusion to angry denial. With details scant and the Eagle County district attorney holding a news conference apparently to polish his enunciation of the phrase "no comment," pundits paid to have a take on every imaginable issue had nothing to lean on except the mountain of goodwill Bryant had built during his seven years with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jim Rome summarized the general mood on his morning radio show.

"Kobe has been accused but not charged," Rome said. "And my feeling is: I need more information. I am going to take a wait-and-see approach with Kobe Bryant for a few reasons.

"To me, he does deserve the benefit of the doubt. Not everybody does, but some do, and Kobe Bryant does based on his track record. The guy's been here in Los Angeles playing for the Lakers for seven years, and he's never been in any trouble whatsoever. He's a stand-up guy, a credible guy, and this seems totally out of character.

"So I'm going to wait and see what the authorities come up with. I don't think there should be a rush to judgment, and I think this guy deserves the benefit of the doubt."

When the news of Bryant's arrest first broke Sunday evening, Jim Gray was ashen-faced as he was questioned about it on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

"This is a fine gentleman," Gray said of Bryant. "He's very cooperative. I've never seen this man have a bad public moment, or a bad private moment. Kobe Bryant represents to me, in many ways, a model athlete. He's terrific with everybody that he comes in contact with in the community, here in Los Angeles and throughout the NBA, and he's a world-wide figure." The allegation "is very much out of character."

Gray was quick to note that it "was only an allegation, and should only be treated as an allegation. It should not be treated as though he has done something that is criminal."

Acknowledging he has known Bryant since the player was a child in Philadelphia, Gray added that he "would be extremely surprised if there was anything criminal that has gone on with this young man. I say that with absolutely no knowledge of what exactly did go on. But everything I know of him it would be very, very surprising to me because it goes against the grain of everything that he has represented."

Even on "Around the Horn," ESPN's first church of the knee-jerk reaction, prudence was preached. A couple of the squawking heads said Bryant's image has been damaged by the allegation, whether or not it proves to be true. The other two said Bryant's collateral of goodwill was tough enough to overcome this episode, provided the allegation is indeed false.

"There is a presumption of innocence in our legal system," host Max Kellerman said, morphing into a veritable voice of reason for a few brief seconds. "There should be a presumption of innocence here."

On Los Angeles radio station XTRA, Vic "The Brick" Jacobs took the triple-jump from presumption of innocence to absolute declaration.

"Do you believe a 19-year sexual predator working the celebrity-studded Vail, Colorado, playgrounds? Or do you believe the 24-year-old basketball Buddha of the Lakers?" Jacobs asked.

He already had his own answer.

"Kobe -- accused of alleged sexual assault. Kobe -- 'assaulting a young woman.' No one can even fathom this scenario. Blatant setup of one of the richest and most famous personalities on the planet."

On ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," guest hosts David Aldridge and Michelle Tafoya read aloud an e-mail with a rather cynical view of Bryant and the street-cred issue.

"Do you think that Nike is secretly happy with Kobe Bryant's recent arrest?" the e-mail said. "The reason Kobe got a relatively small deal from Nike is that he doesn't have enough street cred. Well, it looks to be rising now."

Aldridge: "Well, this is a conspiracy theorist's dream, I guess, that this was a staged arrest. I can't imagine that anybody at Nike -- well, maybe one or two people at Nike -- could be possibly happy with this. Street cred has nothing (to do) with what you do but who you are, really. Kobe is who he is -- he's a middle-class kid from a middle-class family."

Tafoya wanted to know, if street cred does indeed sell shoes, why can't "a guy like Kobe Bryant be just as successful selling shoes with his glamorous, great-looking wholesome presentation?"

Aldridge: "I think kids buy shoes from people that they have some identification with. I don't think -- and it's a sad thing -- I don't think a lot of kids have a lot of identification with Kobe."

Tafoya: "Gosh. That is sad. I want my kids to identify with his work ethic."

Image isn't everything, but until this story yields more details, image remains Bryant's best defense.

"The fact of the matter is, we don't really know Kobe," Rome said on his radio show. "We don't really know anybody. We don't know any of these athletes. You know your friends and your family, and that's about it.

"But in the case of Kobe Bryant, I think this is one of the good guys until proven otherwise."

Mike Penner is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times

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