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How do you market the "next" Michael Jordan? The answer to that question was answered quite definitively over the past year by Arn Tellem, 44, agent for budding superstar Kobe Bryant: You can't.

That isn't to say the image of the red-hot 19-year-old guard for the Los Angeles Lakers hasn't been manufactured. The difference is in who's doing the talking. Mr. Bryant has let the media, the National Basketball Association and NBC crown him Air Apparent. He's responded with modesty, sometimes with the chestnut "There can be no next Michael Jordan, I just wanna be Kobe Bryant." But he has done nothing to discourage such talk.

When USA Today wanted to track his every move during the NBA playoffs after naming him as one of five candidates to be the next Michael Jordan, Mr. Bryant didn't turn the newspaper down.

Mr. Bryant's marketing team includes Mr. Tellem, his parents, with whom he still lives, and Sonny Vaccaro, director of sports promotions at Adidas. They told Advertising Age in March that Mr. Bryant won't rush into endorsements.

But there he was during the commercial breaks of the May/June NBA playoff games, hawking Nintendo videogames, Spalding Sports Worldwide basketballs and Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite. Yet the spots smartly lay a foundation of trust and humility.

An Adidas spot from last fall has Mr. Bryant telling consumers to just be themselves.

Irony is deftly used to both defuse and fuel Kobemania. Nintendo uses a crazed sportscaster to sing Kobe's praises, leaving him confused. Sprite has employed him in two spots for the "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything" campaign.

Mr. Bryant's marketing partners are banking on the youngster to grow "Michael Jordan big." Spalding abandoned Shaquille O'Neal to build a future around Mr. Bryant. Adidas, the hottest athletic brand at retail, is counting on Mr. Bryant.

But that's a big if. Mr. Bryant now has to fulfill his promise and play like Michael Jordan.

The jury is still out on that.

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