Tattoos, jewelry part of new image for Bryant
LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant built an image on and off the court as clean-cut and well-mannered and quickly became a role model who earned millions in endorsements. As his eighth and most scrutinized NBA season begins, he is expressing himself in ways fans and teammates hadn’t seen. He has new tattoos and a diamond earring the size of a marble, and he rides a motorcycle. He’s also constantly surrounded by security guards and frequently refers to God.
The changes to Bryant’s appearance and persona came during a turmoil-filled offseason, when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in Colorado.
Teammates say they don’t know whether Bryant’s new image is related to his legal trouble or just part of growing into adulthood for a player who entered the NBA straight out of high school.
“What you’ve seen is just a continual understanding of himself and his likes and dislikes and a willingness to be a little more true to himself and not so concerned about what everyone else thinks,” teammate Rick Fox said.
Derek Fisher, a rookie with Bryant in 1996, sees the tattoos as a way for Bryant to assert himself outside the tightly controlled world in which he lives.
“I think he also wants to let people know that he is an adult, that he can make his own choices and people have to respect that,” Fisher said.
Bryant’s tattoos on his right arm extend from his shoulder to the elbow: a crown, his wife Vanessa’s name, a halo and angel wings above Psalm XXVII. His daughter Natalia Diamante’s name is in script inside his lower left arm.
“This is a crown for my queen,” he has said of his wife. “She’s my angel. She’s a blessing to me, her and Natalia.”
He has worn an earring in the past, but his current one is so big his earlobe practically droops, and it’s comparable to the $4 million diamond ring he gave his wife shortly after he was charged in Colorado.
The Lakers say they have no problem with Bryant riding a motorcycle, something many NBA contracts prohibit.
“Kobe grew up in Italy, so fast cars and racing, we always knew he had a fetish for that,” Fisher said. “Definitely no fear of high speeds.”
Bryant was raised in a religious, upper middle-class household in Italy and later in suburban Philadelphia. He’s always been polite and respectful, qualities that worked against him in an unsuccessful venture into rap music a few years ago with lyrics that were considered too clean.
His longtime position as a role model and product pitchman worth millions in endorsements hasn’t allowed him room for much individual growth, his teammates and marketing experts say.
“He’s growing up,” said Michael Sands, a media and marketing consultant in Los Angeles. “He’s learning to be his own person by not being emotionally tied to his parents.”
Only one of Bryant’s sponsors, Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread maker Nutella, has dumped him since the sexual assault charge. But none currently airs his commercials. He has a multimillion-dollar sneaker deal with Nike and contracts with Sprite, McDonald’s and Spalding.
“I don’t think this is really going to hurt him that much,” Sands said, assuming Bryant is acquitted at trial of the charges. “He’s coming clean, he’s showing up. He’s respectful of the law, and that’s important to a sponsor.”
Since his arrest in July, Bryant has frequently cited God as one of his guiding principles.
He has recited some of the words of the scriptures inscribed on his arm, among them the Psalm of David, which reads in part: “Teach me Your way, O Lord, And lead me in a smooth path, because of my enemies. Do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries; For false witnesses have risen against me.”
“I’m sure he’s always had those beliefs or that faith, but sometimes it takes something bad happening or something you wish didn’t happen to get you back to a point where you put that first again,” said Fisher, a devout Christian. “Maybe that’s what he’s going through.”
Fox believes Bryant is leaning on the foundation on which he was raised as he searches for answers during a chaotic time in his life.
“Obviously, something is working for him because he’s been able to come out here and continue to push through the pressure that’s mounted outside the court as well as on the court,” Fox said.
Despite the turbulence in his life and his new look, Bryant doesn’t seem to have lost much support among longtime Lakers fans, who still cheer him loudly at home games.
“He seems like regular old Kobe,” said Ricky Vieira, 24, who wore Bryant’s No. 8 jersey during a recent Lakers game. “I’m still a Kobe fan even though he’s got all that drama going on.”