Kobe Bryant wasn’t about to go there. Not when he controls the message, and what happened seven years ago in a hotel room in Colorado fades from public memory.
That didn’t stop a reporter from trying on the eve of the first anniversary of the Tiger Woods scandal to find out how Bryant thought he was able to overcome his own scandal and regain his stature as a superstar in demand by fans around the NBA.
“I’m not answering that question,” Bryant said earlier this month in Denver.
Nothing new there. Bryant has never talked publicly about what happened between himself and a teenage hotel worker that night, though he did have his attorney read a statement in which he apologized to the woman for his behavior.
While Woods continues to struggle to define his scandal, Bryant for the most part seems to have successfully put his behind him even if the allegations against him were more serious. The sexual assault charges were dropped, he paid to settle a civil suit brought by the alleged victim and both sides have kept quiet ever since.
As a strategy, it seems to be working. His image has recovered enough that he earns millions of dollars a year in endorsement deals and his jersey is a top seller not only at home but in Europe and China.
That may be largely because Bryant found a way to do something Woods has yet to do -- keep on winning.
“Kobe went back onto the court and returned to his all-star status. He brought back the legions of basketball fans first,” said Michael Kempner, president of MWW Group public relations in East Rutherford, N.J. “Tiger hasn’t, and in many ways people are reveling in his mediocrity.”
Adding two more titles to his haul since the charges in Colorado has paid off nicely for Bryant. He signed a contract extension in April worth nearly $90 million over three years to become the highest paid player in the NBA, and Forbes magazine estimated that his total annual earnings come close to $50 million when endorsements are figured in.
“Yes, Kobe Bryant had an incident,” said Ronn Torossian, president of 5W Public Relations in New York. “But the incident didn’t define Kobe Bryant. He has recovered, just like many others have recovered.”
Indeed, the mention of his name is no longer followed by talk about the charges. If anything, discussion now revolves around whether he may one day be regarded as the greatest player in the game.
“It’s unbelievable if you think back to that time because the allegations were far more serious than the ones facing Tiger,” said Ralph Cindrich, a sports attorney and agent in Pittsburgh. “Kobe is an example of what can happen if someone comes back, conducts himself properly and says the right things.”
It’s a template some think Woods might want to follow as he tries to put a sex scandal of his own behind him a year after his private escapades were revealed. There is one difference: Bad as they were, the accusations against Bryant came from one woman. Woods is now a divorced man because of numerous reports of serial cheating.
In Bryant’s case, his attorney read the following statement on his client’s behalf:
“I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”
Bryant immediately returned to basketball -- and winning.
Woods relayed his regrets in a globally televised message: “I want to say to each of you, simply and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in. …”
As for winning, it hasn’t happened.
“It all starts with winning and the popularity goes from there,” Cindrich said. “It’s the same way with a Michael Vick or a Ben Roethlisberger. People tend to forgive and forget when they win.”
Once one of the NFL’s biggest and highest paid stars, Vick was broke, reviled and his career was in ruins after he served 18 months in federal prison for running a dogfighting ring.
Now he’s on top again, quarterbacking for the Philadelphia Eagles, and could become perhaps the biggest free agent on the market next year.
Roethlisberger returned to the Steelers on Oct. 17 following a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He was accused of, but not charged with, sexually assaulting a Georgia college student in March. Since his return, the Steelers are 4-2 (7-3 overall), including losses to two of the best teams in the league -- New England and New Orleans.
Woods and Bryant went to dinner in Orlando last year before the golfer’s scandal broke, with Bryant reportedly trying to find out how Woods handled life in a fishbowl.
Someday they may have even more in common if Woods can regain his dominance on the golf course.
“I think America loves to build stars, knock stars down a little bit and then build them back up,” said David Schwab, a vice president at Octagon who specializes in offering celebrity strategy for brands. “You certainly saw that with Kobe.”