But of course, there's a considerable risk in trying to market Kobe again. There's a good chance just his face on the page will inspire more alienation and contempt than connection, because the list on the left page doesn't include his biggest perceived failings of all. There is no mention of his adultery and no word of the charges brought against him in Colorado. Certainly Nike, Kobe and the viewers of the ad all know these things, and are all, on some level, thinking of them as shadow presences, as unspoken obstacles in Kobe's effort to begin the 2005-06 season with a new slate and a new resolve.

Regardless of how the trial turned out, unlike the slaps against his being egotistical or selfish, it seems unlikely the echoes of Eagle County can be written over with push-ups, squats and wind sprints.

It's the photograph of Kobe that acknowledges this, where the text does not. There are mug-shot echoes in the pose, an almost subliminal acknowledgement of what some of us still may be thinking of or about him. In its way, it's an incredibly bold choice on Nike's part, invoking the brand of imagery its campaign and Kobe himself want most to move away from.

But bold isn't exactly the right word. Because there isn't any bravado, no how-ya-like-me-now, in the shot or the pose. Instead, he slouches a bit at the shoulders, and sits low and somber in the frame, as if to say he's determined, yes, but humbled, too. There's a plaintiveness about it, as though it asks the viewer for clemency.

And maybe the most intriguing aspect of the photo is its use of light and dark. Kobe is bathed in shadow, from his shoulders to his temples. Only the leading edge of his face -- the eyes, mouth and nose -- are in the light. He's peeking out. He's emerging, slowly, tentatively from somewhere dark.

It's a brilliant move on Nike's part. It makes the ad, really. Because the words, the grit and the drive in the words are nothing without the subtle but unmistakable humility and reaching-out the photograph provides. The promise in those exercises -- "Lat pulldowns 10 x 4" -- is underwritten by the patience, the not-yet-back-in-your-good-graces patience, of the headshot that moves hesitantly from dark to light.

The sum total of words and picture then isn't an announcement, a return, or even an arrival. It's just a beginning. The ad (and, by extension, Kobe, one would think) isn't sure how folks will react. It anticipates, but can't quite count on, some future spread in the full light of day.

The Kobe in this ad is equal parts bad reputation and unrelenting inner drive, and equal parts regret and hope, too, if the picture tells a story. And we come upon him as he hovers there, with his eyes on the horizon, wondering how this all ends, wondering if all the hard work in the world will be enough for us to let him back in.

Eric Neel is a Page 2 columnist.


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