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Kobe has successfully rebuilt his image

KOBE BRYANT was being humble, like a proper superstar should. It's good for the image, something Barry Bonds never figured out and likely regrets now that his playing days seem to be over.

KOBE BRYANT was being humble, like a proper superstar should.

It's good for the image, something Barry Bonds never figured out and likely regrets now that his playing days seem to be over.

Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs had ended just moments before, and Bryant was now on national television telling everyone how it was his mistake late in the game that almost cost the Los Angeles Lakers a playoff win.

Never mind that it was Bryant who actually won the game for the Lakers. It's all about image building, and there's nothing that plays better among fans than a star who admits his mistakes.

And if there's anyone who knows about having to build - make that rebuild - an image, it's Bryant.

Hard to believe it was less than 5 years ago when he sat in a courtroom in Eagle, Colo., listening as a prosecutor recounted in graphic detail how Bryant allegedly forced himself on a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room.

Bryant was not the most beloved of players, even before the woman went to police with her charges. A lot of fans regarded him as selfish and petulant, despite the three NBA championships he and Shaquille O'Neal teamed up to give the Lakers.

But quarreling with teammates and being accused of rape are two entirely different things. And there wasn't a lot to love about the picture painted in court.

I was there in the tiny courtroom, watching Bryant as he stared straight ahead, trying to get some kind of a read into his emotions and his thought process.

There wasn't much chance of that since Bryant sat there stoically, without so much as a hint of an expression on his face.

Bryant wasn't the only one taking a beating in court. His attorneys were in attack mode, taking every opportunity to paint the woman as a groupie who wanted nothing more than to have sex with a celebrity.

I later wrote that there were no winners, just losers, in the courtroom that day, and that no matter what happened to Bryant he had already lost in the court of public opinion.

Turns out I was wrong.

There was never a trial, even though the judge thought there was enough evidence to hold one. Sexual-assault charges that could have sent Bryant to prison for many years were dropped after the woman said she couldn't face the public spectacle of testifying.

Money was paid to settle a civil suit, though no one ever said how much. Part of the deal was that everyone had to keep quiet, in hopes it would all fade away.

Fast forward a few years, and it seems to be working.

The sponsors who wanted nothing to do with him now court him with promises of millions of dollars and ad campaigns where he jumps over cars. One of the most all-American brands, Coca-Cola, is using Bryant to sell flavored water and Nike has a campaign for the shoes he will wear in the Olympics.

He's the MVP of the league for the first time, and a change in numbers only helped sell more jerseys. Sometime next month he's likely to be standing on the court celebrating another NBA title, and sometime in August he'll likely be at the head of the line in China when Olympic gold medals are being handed out.

His public rehabilitation is now almost complete. The questions are now about basketball and, if they're not, they're tossed up in softball interviews for Bryant to hit out of the park.

The other day, one of the most visited Web sites touted an exclusive video interview with Bryant in which he essentially is asked if he is as great a father as he is a basketball player.

Not surprisingly, he seemed to think so.

Bryant's defenders will tell you he's grown a lot during the last 5 years, on the court and off. Indeed, he passes the ball much more now and the coach who once called him uncoachable now basically has handed him the reins of the team.

More important, there hasn't been a whiff of trouble since that night in Colorado, unless, of course, you believe rumors that bloggers can't seem to resist spreading across the Internet.

No one except Bryant and his accuser know exactly what happened in that hotel room.

What we know is that it now seems so long ago, even if it isn't. Most fans no longer care, if they ever did.

Proving, it seems, that a little image building can go a long way. *