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.
Past your prime.
Box jumps x 3.
100m run x 10.
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.)