Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has three world championship rings, the league record for outside scoring and a string of 40-point games studded with moves that have left defenders flat-footed.
But on Friday, Bryant came up against a different kind of opponent: bottom-line economics.
In the midst of intense negotiations over a new shoe endorsement deal, Reebok International Ltd. said it concluded that the NBA all-star wasn't worth the millions he wanted.
"We worked hard to look at the various ways in which we might make the most out of a partnership with Kobe," Reebok Chief Executive Paul Fireman said in a statement. "But in the end, we realized that we simply could not justify the costs, which our analysis showed could exceed the benefits."
Although Bryant might inspire comparisons on the court with basketball great Michael Jordan, his marketability has fallen short.
Some sports marketing experts say he does not connect with young urban blacks who drive the sales of high-end sneakers. Bryant, who has lived overseas and speaks Italian, is perceived in some quarters as being too suburban, too aloof.
Bryant tried once to tinker with his image by cutting a hip-hop record, but it flopped.
Bryant said Friday night that it was his decision to break off the talks earlier this week because he felt uncomfortable with the company's negotiating tactics.
"It's not the place for me," he said before the Lakers' game at Staples Center. "Actually, Reebok, what I learned about them throughout the negotiation process is they'll back away from the table and then they'll come back to eat the next night. At this point, I really don't want to go that route."
He said his promotional value was not an issue in his break with Reebok, and he dismissed the firm's public assessment of his marketing clout as "politics. They have to cover [themselves]. I accept that."
The demise of the proposed Reebok deal gives negotiating leverage to Nike Inc., the only major shoe company now vying for Bryant's endorsement. But it also underscores new realities in the rapidly changing world of sports marketing.
As sales of signature basketball shoes continue to slump, the old marketing models no longer apply, say industry and stock analysts. Companies can't afford to throw large sums of money at the league's biggest stars in the hopes of duplicate Nike's phenomenal success with its Air Jordan line.
Dean Bonham, a Denver sports marketing agent, said that although he may differ with Reebok's assessment of Bryant's promotional clout, its decision Friday was a "classic example of the kind of shakeout we've been seeing in the footwear and apparel industry during the last three or four years."
Meanwhile, say others, Bryant finds himself sharing a shrinking endorsement stage with the likes of newcomers Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets and Ohio high school basketball sensation LeBron James.
Already, rookie Yao has scored a hit with the public with his Apple Computer ads, while James has shoe companies tripping over themselves in an effort to get his endorsement.
"Between Yao and LeBron, they suck all of the air out of the marketing room," Newport Beach sports agent Leigh Steinberg said. "It takes potential bidders and marketing dollars away from Kobe's plate."
That's not the marketing world Bryant envisioned when he broke away from Adidas last year in an attempt to seek out a better deal for himself. It cost Bryant an estimated $8 million in lost fees and an additional $10 million he has to repay when he signs a new contract, said two industry sources familiar with the terms. Bryant, coming off his third consecutive NBA championship, was expected to land a record-setting contract based on his prowess on the court.
But the biggest concern in the shoe talks quickly became Bryant himself, said a source familiar with the negotiations. Shoe companies have worried about the star's apparent lack of street credibility with "ballers," the nickname for players found on the grittiest inner-city basketball courts from New York to Los Angeles.
Those players -- largely black teens and adults in their 20s -- buy an estimated 90% of high-end shoes costing $100 and more and start trends that ripple out to suburban malls. Among the top sellers: Nike's Jordan line, Adidas' shoes named after the Orlando Magic's Tracy McGrady and Reebok's shoes endorsed by Philadelphia 76ers bad boy Allen Iverson.
At the public courts on Venice Beach, the mention of Bryant's name provokes mixed emotions -- not the urge to splurge on his footwear. After a spirited pickup game, Rich Baderinwa said he respects Bryant's game but can't see himself in Bryant's shoes.. . He scoffed in particular at Bryant's attempt at rapping.
"His rap was whack," said Baderinwa, 26, of Venice. "When he put out that CD, nobody bought it. And you know why nobody bought it? Because nobody bought him."