Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have been bumped from the National Basketball Association playoffs, Kobe Bryant, the team’s star, faces an off-the-court challenge. This winter, Bryant alienated a large segment of the Lakers’ fan base, members of California’s large Diaspora Armenian community, with a decision to endorse Turkish Airlines. Now, some hope Bryant will use the off-season to make amends.
When the season started, many experts believed Bryant and his teammates would be playing the Miami Heat in June for the NBA championship. Now, he can only expect to get more heat from diaspora Armenians. Bryant’s summer vacation began far earlier than expected when his team suffered the ignominy of a 4-0 second-round series sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. The shocking way the Lakers, defending NBA champs, exited the playoffs could end up sharpening the residual resentment that many Armenian fans feel for Bryant.
When the two-year Turkish Airlines endorsement deal was announced last winter, Armenian diaspora groups reacted with outrage. The Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, as well as the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), issued statements calling on the Lakers’ star to cancel the deal. Given the Turkish government’s 49-percent stake in Turkish Airlines, diaspora groups suggested that Bryant was accepting “blood money” because of Ankara’s refusal to acknowledge the 1915 Ottoman Turk slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide.
The hard feelings intensified this spring as billboards featuring Bryant, who has never been to Turkey, began popping up in southern California to publicize the launch of direct Turkish Airlines flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul. He also appeared in a television commercial touting the direct flights. Turkish Airlines, which turned a $191-million profit in 2010, is no stranger to using athletic stars to promote its brand. The company also has endorsement deals with two of the highest profile soccer clubs in Europe, Manchester United and FC Barcelona.
Now that Bryant doesn’t have to concentrate on basketball again until the fall, diaspora community leaders hope the supremely talented guard will have time to reflect on his endorsement choice. “My hope is that he'll show his fans that in selling his brand, that he has not sold his soul, and he can do that by speaking openly and honestly about the Armenian Genocide,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian told EurasiaNet.org.
Bryant and his agent, Robert Pelinka, have remained mum on the matter, despite attempts by the AYF to arrange a meeting to explain their concerns. Pelinka and his company Landmark Sports Agency, who takes all media queries via email, did not respond to interview requests.
Zanku Armenian, a corporate communications specialist and columnist who has written several editorials condemning the deal, says Bryant's continued silence speaks volumes. “If they do nothing and continue to ignore the situation, I think that ultimately there is going to be a chilling effect,” he said. “It will have set a precedent by the Lakers and by Kobe that he is insensitive and doesn't really care about the community – that in of itself will be a statement.”
Armenian says the controversy reached a high point when Turkish Airlines Director Fatma Yuceler released a statement in which she maintained that the endorsement deal was in no way related to “sensitive and complex controversy over highly contested history.” Many diaspora Armenians interpreted the statement as being dismissive of genocide claims. Yuceler, who appeared with Bryant at a celebration of the LA-Istanbul service's launch in March in Los Angeles, didn't respond to interview requests from a EurasiaNet.org correspondent.
Many Lakers’ fans of Armenian descent said they felt betrayed by Bryant’s Turkish Airlines deal. “I thought he would have a better idea of sensitive issues and people's cultural background,” said Max Nazaryan, one of the disappointed Lakers fans.
But not all diaspora Armenians are ready to condemn Bryant. Anush Avejic, whose son is an avid fan of the Lakers, asserted that the Armenian community's expectations of Bryant are unrealistic. “We as a people need to move on and do something constructive and of worth, rather than this hoopla that goes on with no outcome,” she said. “We spend so much time and energy and money on lobbyists just to get our point across and our point is not being made, because we're still in that victim mentality.”
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.