Maybe Bryant has to put more spin on image-making than playmaking

December 15, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

THE KOBE BRYANT official enemies list has gotten so long that it's hard to tell all the people he hates without a program.

The embattled Los Angeles Lakers superstar has become fixated on erstwhile teammate Karl Malone after a rather uncomfortable incident at the Staples Center three weeks ago that left Mrs. Bryant convinced Malone had made a move on her in the stands.

Right now, you're probably thinking to yourself, "So what if Malone hit on Kobe's wife. Isn't that the kind of thing everybody does in the NBA?" Which is a fair question. But when you're as committed to marital fidelity as Kobe Bryant, it's not the kind of thing you can just shrug off.

Here's what happened.

Vanessa Bryant saw Malone and one of his kids down near the Lakers' bench and called him on her cell phone, inviting him to bring the child up to sit with her. It was a nice, friendly gesture that Malone quickly accepted, and that would have been the end of it if Malone had just dumped the kid and gone off to hit on one of the 8,000 other women in the arena. But Malone (and this is where it gets a little weird) was wearing a cowboy hat and boots when he went up to greet Mrs. Bryant, which led to this controversial exchange:

Vanessa Bryant: "Hey, cowboy, what are you hunting?"

Malone: "I'm hunting for little Mexican girls."

That much is not in dispute, since Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers - whom I've been trying to impersonate since August - got both sides to stipulate to it. Vanessa Bryant, who is Mexican-American, interpreted the comment as a come-on and told her husband after the game that Malone had said several inappropriate things to her.

So, now you know why Bryant went on an L.A. radio station a week or so later and sounded like a selfish jerk when he said Malone's uncertain injury status was a distraction to the younger players on the team, who - Bryant said - "are giving me 110 percent." He wasn't trying to flaunt the fact that the Lakers were "his" team (which everybody already knew). He was actually sending a subtle message to Malone to go troll for desperate NBA housewives somewhere else ... and next time don't forget to wear chaps.

It strikes me that Malone probably could have soothed any hurt feelings by purchasing a $4 million diamond ring and delivering it to Vanessa Bryant during last weekend's game against the Clippers. It has worked before.

Of course, it's possible Malone was just joking around and the Bryants totally overreacted. Kobe already has been involved in public feuds with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal and former coach Phil Jackson. Once the golden boy of the NBA, Bryant has seen his image take a series of major hits - beginning with the damaging rape investigation in Colorado and including the public backlash from the divisive role he played in the recent dismantlement of the Lakers' dynasty.

Want some proof? ESPN.com is running a poll that asked the question, "Who would you rather have on your team, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant?" Though yesterday afternoon, with more than 275,000 responses, James had received a staggering 89 percent of the vote.

Want more proof? The same Web site reported yesterday that Nike has no plans to aggressively market Bryant in the near future, even though the company is stuck with the five-year, $40 million endorsement deal it struck with him shortly before he was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee in Colorado. McDonald's and dessert spread Nutella have ended their association with Bryant. He still has promotional contracts with Spalding and Coca-Cola, but both companies seem to be waiting for those deals to expire next year.

Maybe that explains everything. Maybe Kobe figures if he can drag down enough of the big guys around him, he'll divert attention from his own shortcomings and work his way back to the top of the heap.

Don't know about you, but it's times like these that make me wish I were still in California, a sentiment that has been affirmed by hundreds of e-mailers over the past four months.

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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