By Chris Olds | Beckett Basketball Editor| Commentary
With Panini America‘s new multi-year licensing deal with the NBA, it’s quite possible that the remainder of Kobe Bryant‘s professional career will only be documented on cards made by the Italian company.
And that’s fitting considering that Kobe spent part of his childhood in Italy when his dad played pro basketball there — but that’s not part of what interests his kids these days at all, no matter what Daddy decides to do in a few years.
“The Anthology thing they are doing is pretty cool,” Bryant said. “You get a chance to go back and look at the career throughout the years. The kids enjoy it because they get to go back and look at Daddy’s Afro and all of that good stuff. It’s been a great partnership.
” … My kids, they just think it’s cool. It’s just cool. You have a card, you look at it, you check it out. For them, they like looking at Dad’s Afro. For them it’s just cool to have, they can pass it around, share it with their classmates. ”
Bryant has been around since the beginning of Panini America’s foray into the American trading card landscape back in 2009, and it was Bryant’s drawing power around the world that drew the company to him, according to Panini America CEO Mark Warsop.
“Kobe was one of the very first marquee athletes that we signed, actually,” Warsop said. “No sooner did we ink the original contract with the NBA in 2009, we started working on a long-term agreement with Kobe to be the voice of Panini.”
And talk of the voice of Panini perhaps winding things down doesn’t matter right now — he’s got the kind of appeal that goes beyond just playing on the court.
“He’s continued to be a key part of our NBA product from both a marketing perspective but also content and cards,” Warsop said. “We intend to have Kobe for a key part of our product for many years to come.”
Bryant credited Panini’s focus on the global game being one that should strengthen the league and its trading cards — as well as benefit its players in the future.
“I think the partnership they have created with the NBA has been tremendous in terms of creating awareness about the game,” Bryant said. “Second, it’s just flat-out cool. You always wanted to be featured on trading cards and things of that nature.
“They do a great job positioning the sport. It’s been fun for me to be a part of it, in terms of bringing things to the U.S. market and helping them grow,” Bryant said. “I like being a part of things like that, things that are relatively new or on the verge or doing something new, doing something different, thinking outside the box. Panini certainly does that.”
Bryant is one of a few spokesmen for the company, a roster that includes Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant, and he said he appreciates being part of a process and a merchandising category that can benefit all NBA players.
“For other players around the league, it does the same thing. It gets them involved in the creative process,” Bryant said. “For the NBA, it’s just great for the globalization of the game. Panini is obviously a global brand. … I doubt we’ll ever catch soccer, but we’ll make it a formidable challenge.”
And as a spokesman for the company, Bryant’s face will appear on cards as well as packs and boxes of cards around the world, including over in Italy. Bryant said he remembers how cards were cooler when he was younger — and he remembers the brand well — but that he also enjoys being a part of something bigger.
“I think we continue to grow. For me personally, I’ve had a relationship with Panini as a kid growing up in Italy so I was fortunate enough to sign here and help open up the U.S. market. It continues to expand the game and also brings trading cards back to having that cool factor they had when I was a kid growing up or when we were kids growing up.”
And despite being around the game and being successful at it on a national stage at a young age, Bryant said he never imagined being on cards that people would spend their hard-earned money on.
“I remember going to the card shop and seeing a [Michael] Jordan Rookie Card and being blown away by it,” he said. “I never expected myself one day to have a card people would trade around and be valuable. It feels great to be part of that fraternity.”
Bryant also discussed his excitement of seeing a company try some new things, while also accenting the basic appeal of card collecting.
“Obviously with technology and things that they are doing I’m sure Panini will be on the cutting edge in terms of what they do, how they come up with different ways to reinvent the game,” Bryant said. “There’s nothing better sometimes than having a card in hand that you can pass around. There’s something to that. My kids enjoy it.”
So, is there anything else Kobe’s kids enjoy about basketball cards these days?
“[They laugh at] the big goatee. I tell them the goatee is the one thing i can grow back. The Afro I can’t grow back. It’s over.”
Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Basketball magazine. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.