Kobe Bryant started his career with the LA Lakers as a tremendous athlete with a valuable brand. His stock rose like an elevator, as Madison Avenue loved him as much as Laker fans. Then life took a strange twist. First, there was the nasty departure of Shaquille O'neal, which instantly reduced Kobe and the Lakers to "also-rans" in the NBA playoffs. A man who was used to winning championships was reduced to simply playing for pay.
Off the court, things got even worse. In 2003, Kobe was accused of a horrifically embarrassing sexual assault, a case that was later dropped. But even though the charges were dropped, the case still had a lasting impact on Bryant's reputation: Sponsors ran the other way and everyone wondered if Kobe might turn into another "coulda, woulda, shoulda" black athlete.
But he persisted. The Lakers got a little bit better every year, with that improvement culminating in what some believe to be Kobe's first "real championship" this year; a title without the boost of a dominant big man. For the first time, the Lakers are champions under Kobe's watch. He has proven that he is more than a replica of Anfernee Hardaway.