That was then.
Now Kobe Bryant is 19. He's a Los Angeles Laker. He's an all-star starter who doesn't start for his own team. And he's being molded by the NBA's media machine into the league's next-generation superman.
This year, he will star in the largest ad efforts to come out of Spalding Sports Worldwide and Adidas America. Last week, Nintendo of America inked a deal to rebrand an existing basketball videogame as "Kobe Bryant's NBA Courtside."
He is 1998's athlete brand in demand. And if his agents have their way, Mr. Bryant won't be stilling that demand anytime soon.
NEEDS LONG-TERM DEALS
If his agents can resist saying yes for now (a one-time appearance in a spot for Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite last fall and a rumored McDonald's Corp. deal suggests they can't), when he does say yes, he will say it to long-term deals with hungry, world-class marketers.
"I promised his family I wouldn't oversaturate him," said Sonny Vaccaro, Adidas' legendary director of sports promotions who's known Kobe all his life through a relationship with his father, and who is involved in the star's marketing decisions. "You can't give the public a Cracker Jack box. You lose credibility when everything becomes a payday."
Yes, Kobe Bryant, a hip and handsome (yet humble), spectacular (but still learning) athlete icon is being deliberately cultivated. But save for last month's all-star game, where NBC's fawning drew media criticism and Kobe's hot-dogging irked NBA veterans, he seems to be avoiding the appearance of being manufactured.
"Our society has become more sophisticated and can see through a contrived strategy to develop an icon," said Dean Bonham, president-CEO of Bonham Group. "Kobe Bryant comes across fresh and natural and not contrived. He's also extraordinarily talented, which is the critical ingredient."
"Kobe basically embodies what the NBA is about right now: youth, excitement, charisma and charm," said Dan Touhey, Spalding's product manager of retail basketball. "We want to lend his superstardom to our authenticity as the NBA's official basketball."
FIRST SPALDING CAMPAIGN
Spalding's first Kobe Bryant ad campaign, hitting this spring, supports a new brand positioning. Mr. Bryant will benefit from Spalding's plan to increase media spending by 50% this year; TV spots will run almost exclusively during NBA broadcasts.
Mr. Bryant also will get a signature basketball product line. Those products will be more sophisticated and upscale than the usual graphics-laden, player-endorsed ball no serious hoops player would use.
Adidas has employed Mr. Bryant in two global ad pushes to date. The third arrives in late summer to promote the KB8 3 basketball shoe. But Adidas hopes Kobe's mojo can influence its entire line of products.
Despite a recent slump, Mr. Vaccaro is confident Kobe is no flash in the pan. "He's show time," he said. "Signing Kobe was a major step for Adidas, the boldest step it's ever taken in this new era of Adidas. If we've guessed wrong, then I don't know what's right."