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Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Endorsers will be leery of tainted star

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant can go on as a basketball superstar, but his squeaky-clean image is gone forever.

The prosecutors' decision in Colorado to drop charges Wednesday frees Bryant to resume his NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers and collect his new seven-year, $136.4 million contract without fear of going to prison.

Winning back the lucrative endorsement deals that were lost or suspended won't be so easy.

David M. Carter, a Los Angeles-area sports business consultant, believes Bryant's reputation has been so damaged that his earnings outside the game will never be the same.

Before being charged in July 2003 with assaulting a then-19-year-old woman at a Colorado resort, Bryant was one of the most popular pitchmen around.

"I think consumer product companies, the McDonald's and Sprites of the world, have really washed their hands of him at this point," Carter said. "I believe that by the time he's able to restore his reputation, if he's ever able to do that, he'll be old enough to be pitching denture cream and prune juice."

In June, Forbes.com ranked Bryant as the 10th highest-paid celebrity of 2004, with earnings of $26.1 million from June 2003 to June 2004 in salary, bonuses, prize money, appearance fees and endorsements. Endorsements accounted for half the total.

In addition to his new seven-year contract to play basketball, he has a five-year, $45 million deal with Nike signed days before the allegations surfaced, though he has not appeared in the shoe maker's commercials since then. His contract with Coca-Cola, the maker of Sprite, runs through next year.

Bryant still faces a civil suit brought by the 20-year-old woman who accused him of raping her in an Eagle, Colo., hotel room. But regardless of the outcome, Carter said Bryant is damaged goods in the business world.

"I think corporate shareholders are going to be very leery even though many believe the case shouldn't have been prosecuted to begin with," Carter said. "Corporate shareholders are very risk-adverse. They're going to be very leery about associating with any athlete who has a checkered past."

The Lakers, meanwhile, took a huge gamble earlier this summer that Bryant wouldn't be convicted of rape when they signed him to his new contract.

It paid off.

"Naturally we are pleased that the charges against Kobe have been dropped," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement. "This has been a very difficult situation over the past 14 months for everyone involved. Kobe has handled himself with dignity and professionalism throughout this very trying ordeal.

"We have fully supported Kobe in every way we could ... We will continue to support him as we put this behind us and move forward."

When Bryant opted to remain with the Lakers on July 15, Kupchak had said: "If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take."

Lakers owner Jerry Buss said much the same thing a few days earlier.

Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, declined to comment.

At a shopping center near Bryant's home in Newport Beach, fans expressed relief and excitement about the future of Bryant and the Lakers.

"It's going to be a winning team," said real estate agent Kent Campbell, 39, who said he did not believe the charges against Bryant. "There's a cloud that's been lifted."

Bryant, who turned 26 last month, joined the Lakers in 1996 shortly after graduating from high school and established himself as one of the NBA's greatest stars.

But with the trade of Shaquille O'Neal to Miami, the Bryant-led Lakers are no longer considered among the NBA's elite teams.

Bryant's well-documented feuds with O'Neal created chaos, but the two combined to lead the Lakers to championships from 2000-2002.

They were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last year and reached the NBA Finals this year, losing to the Detroit Pistons.