Kobe Bryant

Before Kobe Bryant rocketed to international stardom as a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, he was an on-the-rise high school basketball player who Adidas had the foresight to sign an endorsement deal.

While NBA players paid tribute to Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday, on social media, former Adidas America president and chief executive officer Steve Wynne spoke of his athleticism and unwavering presence in an interview with WWD. He credited the company’s “basketball guru” Sonny Vaccaro for recognizing Bryant’s big-time potential. Wynne said, “He told us when Kobe was in one of our camps at the age of 15 or 16, ‘This kid is going to be one of the best players ever.’”

Recalling how Bryant was in his final semester in high school when Adidas inked a deal with him in 1996, Wynne said, “When I finally met Kobe, you realized the basketball talent was there. When people like Sonny make statements like that, you know that it is self-evident. But what was most impressive about him was his presence. This was a really smart, very thoughtful and very dedicated individual. He had a presence unlike any 18-year-old that I had ever met. You just felt the drive and the determination and the willingness to do what he had to do to succeed. When you pair that with the talent that people like Sonny said he had, you knew that the combination was overwhelming.

“His drive was so evident that anyone who spent 10 or 15 minutes with him, could feel it,” the former Adidas executive said. Having grown up for the most part in Europe [in Italy where his retired NBAer father played out the end of his basketball career], Bryant spoke several languages and was much more worldly than other young athletes, Wynne said. “He had a lot of options in life. He clearly was smart. He demonstrated that after he retired from basketball — how he could succeed at a whole bunch of things if he put his mind to it,” he said.

While Adidas executives had complete confidence in Vaccaro’s evaluation of Bryant, others were more skeptical. Remembering how Bryant’s high-profile deal was unveiled at a New York City press conference, Wynne said, “We took a beating from the New York sports media about him being so young and why were we spending so much money on somebody that way. I think there was a lot of skepticism about that. I was just so impressed by the way that he handled all that. Not that long after that, I was at one of the NBA playoff games and I sat with [former commissioner] David Stern. David said to me, ‘I only have one question for you — why Kobe Bryant?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re all going to see.’ And I guess we all did.”

After Bryant signed with Adidas in 1996, it took him a few seasons to make that big of a mark on the NBA, the former Adidas America head noted. As a teenager, his parents sometimes visited the company’s Portland, Ore. offices with him. Adidas was struggling in the basketball category and was not much of a factor in the industry at that point, Wynne said. “We were looking for a player that we could build around. He not only had the skill set, but he got it. He got how the world worked.”

Bryant and Adidas parted ways in 2002, with the NBA star reportedly paying $8 million to get out of his contract. Before he nicknamed himself the “Black Mamba” and completed 20 seasons with the NBA, Bryant signed an endorsement deal with Nike. Wynne also praised Nike for the way that they handled Bryant as an endorsed athlete. “Nike did a great job with him — a better job than Adidas did in handling him. Nike did a really good job of profiling him. They helped build an image that was consistent with his,” Wynne said, adding that Bryant “was well-supported by Nike, during this whole problem he had in Denver,” (referring to sexual assault allegations against Bryant by a 19-year-old hotel employee in 2003, a case that was later settled out of court).

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