Kobe Bryant's reputation was unblemished in 1996, when he was simply the best high school player in the nation. Even though prosecutors last week dropped the sexual assault charge that had hung over him since last summer, his image will never be as pristine as it was eight years ago. Which may explain why, though he remains under contract to Coca-Cola and Nike, the only major Bryant-centric marketing push now under consideration is Nike's plan to sell replicas of the jersey he wore at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa. The school district stood to make $100,000 to license the maroon-and-white shirt for five years, and the school board last month tabled the proposal. Bryant's endorsement career, which once earned him about $11 million annually, has surely taken a hit. McDonald's and Nutella have let their deals with him expire, and Coke used LeBron James in its Sprite ads. Their wariness is not unfounded. In 2002-03 Bryant's was the top-selling NBA jersey. This season it was seventh. But Bryant still has some appeal; autograph seekers mobbed him at the Eagle County Airport last Thursday, the day after the charge was dropped. Will the school board cast its lot with Bryant? Board president Larry Rosenwald says public sentiment toward the deal is split. "Some say, 'If people want to spend their money to help fund public education, I'm fine with that.' Others say he set a bad example, so we shouldn't do this."
CRAIG WALKER/AP (BRYANT)
JAY GORODETZER/CORBIS (BRYANT PLAYING)