Kobe Bryant grimacing in pain from what would eventually be a season-ending ankle injury. (AP)
Was Kobe Bryant scheduled to visit the Philippines again before he tore his Achilles tendon?
This question has been spurred since a billboard of the Los Angeles Lakers leader emerged on Metro Manila's main thoroughfare Epifanio delos Santos Avenue or EDSA, which bisects much of the greater metropolitan Manila area. The ad, located on the northbound lane of the country's busiest road just past Guadalupe bridge, shows a dapper Black Mamba smiling at a smartphone in his hand. If you weren't used to seeing him out of the Forum blue and gold, you'd take a second look, wondering who would merit such homage on such prime real estate.
Bryant is the new endorser for a popular brand of computers in Asia. His surprisingly reasonable fee was supposedly shared by at least two of the markets involved, and he was supposedly scheduled to visit China and the Philippines on a promotional tour after the current NBA season. Of course, now we all know that Bryant won't be doing any traveling any time soon, not even on the basketball court, after he injured himself as the Lakers made a final push to get into the playoffs. Disturbing images of the in-game injury became fodder for all sorts of commentary around the world.
There have been unconfirmed reports that LeBron James was also being targeted at endorsing the brand. James was supposedly very open to the idea, until the deal reached his management and was delayed. Byant was reportedly very easy to negotiate with, and was said to have signed the contract within two days. Byant is a very attractive commodity in Asia, his jersey even outselling Yao Ming's in China when Yao was still active.
Bryant first visited the Philippines in 1998 as part of the adidas Streetball Challenge, and showed local basketball pros how he dunked up to his elbow in an exhibition at the SM Megamall. A story even circulated that the young Laker had actually eluded his security detail and was roaming Glorietta mall in Makati City with a friend, until he was quickly recognized by NBA fans and soon had a mob of admirers following him. Soon, as the story goes his security personnel found the mischievous teen in a store in the mall.
He returned to the Philippines nine years later, this time as a full-fledged winner, Olympian and Nike ambassador. This time, it was a full media tour, with press conferences, television interviews, a product launch and open drills and scrimmage, highlighted by his signature "blackout drill". Kobe had obviously matured, becoming more measured in his responses, calculated in his gestures, and polished in dealing with the public.
Bryant made his most recent visit as part of a selection of the best NBA talent available that played during the NBA lockout. The veteran guard jetted in from China for two days that filled up the historic Big Dome, which that day was re-christened Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Historically, American celebrities have signed geographically limited endorsement deals that paid millions of dollars for use only in places like Japan, China and parts of Europe. In the 1980s Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy and even NBA talent like Patrick Ewing were wooed to do TV ads in Japan. In China, players like Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Baron Davis have their own endorsements. Shaquille O'Neal has even lent his ad image to his own sportswear brand.
The big story now show far the Lakers, seeded seventh in the West are going to go without Bryant. The combination of so many playoff and championship runs, heavy practice, travel, time and the pressure to make the postseason finally told on him. Remember, he was always playing against top talent, even just for fun as a kid. On top of all the training were more hours of one-on-one play. Something eventually had to give.
Now that he is recuperating from surgery, Bryant will have to content himself with just watching his team in the playoffs, as exasperating a proposition as that may be. Eventually though, he will fulfill his promise to come back to the Philippines when his health permits, and thrill his legion of fans anew.