Nike releases Kobe's signature shoe

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is finally getting his own Nike signature shoe, exactly halfway into a five-year, $45 million deal with the shoe and apparel giant.

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A shoe called the Zoom Kobe I will appear in stores in mid-February, but Bryant will give a sneak preview of the shoe to those watching his Lakers take on the Miami Heat on Dec. 25. The shoe will also immediately appear on an extremely limited basis in select stores in the Los Angeles area the following day.

Nike will also launch Bryant's signature apparel line, which features a Bryant-inspired logo, in February, around the NBA All-Star break.

"Nike celebrates the athletic achievements of our elite competitors," said Nike spokesman Rodney Knox, in a statement. "Kobe's inclusion in marketing and promotional material is an acknowledgement of his elevated level of sports performance."

Bryant was accused of sexual assault in early July 2003 only a few weeks after the ink had dried on the contract. Charges were dropped in the criminal case and the civil suit was eventually settled. But, over a period of two years, Bryant's endorsers, including McDonald's, Nutella, Spalding and Coca-Cola, distanced themselves from him and allowed their deals to expire without renewal.

The Nike plan to bring back Kobe has been both quiet and, apparently, very calculated.

In July, they featured him in their advertising for the first time and released a sneaker with a specially created logo. The shoe wasn't Bryant's signature shoe per se, but fans could learn about the association on the shoe company's Web site.

It was a step further than what Nike had done the previous two years with the Air Huarache 2K4 and 2K5. Sneakerheads knew that this was the shoe that Bryant was wearing, though Nike officials made no public reference to that fact.

After the sexual assault allegations surfaced, some marketers said they believed that Bryant's potential as a pitchman was forever doomed. "You will never see Kobe do another TV commercial," advertising guru Donnie Deutsch said at the time.

Deutsch told NBC's Today Show in November that he still thinks Nike is making the wrong decision by using Bryant.

But the data isn't all negative on Bryant. In fact, he could be the most polarizing force in all of sports marketing. An ESPN Poll released in June revealed that fans thought he was the eighth best athlete in all of sports to endorse a product. That same poll reflected that he was the worst athlete to endorse a product, ahead of the likes of Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson.

But there's reason to believe that Bryant is still resonating with more people than statistical gurus give him credit for. He recently shot a national public service announcement for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and one source told ESPN.com that his representation is in talks with a video game company and a fast food chain.

"One of the key ingredients to Kobe's marketability is the unparalleled manner in which he competes," said his agent Rob Pelinka, who would not publicly comment on talks of any future deals. "His drive and passion are emotions that really resonate with most consumers."

Last month, the Sports Business Daily ranked Bryant as the NBA's fifth most marketable player behind LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming and Kevin Garnett. The latest numbers from the NBA, which include jersey sales from NBA.com and the NBA Store in Manhattan, show that Bryant is the fifth most popular jersey in the league. Throughout his ordeal, he never dropped out of the league's top 10 best selling jerseys, according to stats compiled by the NBA.

Bryant had two signature shoes in the past in his previous contract with adidas. Sales of his second shoe, the KOBETWO, were disappointing. Industry insiders speculated that this was either because of Bryant's lack of "street cred" or had to do with the funky design of the shoe.

Meanwhile, Bryant's Lakers are looking like playoff contenders after missing the playoffs last year for only the fifth time in team history. He is averaging 32.5 points per game, which ranks second in the league behind Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson. Bryant scored 62 points in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.