Kobe's trial by T-shirt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First it was "Free Winona." Then "Martha Stewart Living in Jail." Now it's Kobe Bryant's turn in the T-shirt hall of fame - or shame.

Bryant supporters are hanging up their gold-and-purple basketball jerseys to don pro-Kobe apparel in an effort to assert that he is innocent of sexual assault. Bryant foes also are making out well with anti-Kobe gear, such as "Colorado Prison League" T-shirts from alfredwbush.com.

Other Web sites, like FreeKobeBryant.net, FreeKobe.com, YQue.com and PrayforKobe.com, offer Byrant-themed tees, too.

Bryant, an all-star guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, is due in a Colorado courtroom in October for a preliminary hearing on charges of felony sexual assault against a 19-year-old woman June 30 at a mountain resort.

Gideon Shiffman, 20, founder of FreeKobeBryant.net, peddles T-shirts from his site and throughout Los Angeles. For Shiffman, the point is to generate support for his idol. And if he can make money on it, he figures, so what?

"This is a capitalistic country, and I'm not going to lie: I'm going to make money off of this," he said. "I am a Kobe fan, and I believe he's innocent."

Shiffman's shirts are more controversial than others on the market. The company acting as host for FreeKobeBryant.net shut it down without warning, citing "offensive gender stereotypes" and "making light of a sexual assault victim." The company reversed itself, though, after Shiffman threatened to sue.

"Everything's a joke, even though it's a serious issue," he said. "There's a market for my funny shirts."

David Feingold, creator of FreeKobe.com, says he began the site as a gag. But when it began getting 3.6 million hits a day, Feingold said, he began selling Free Kobe shirts, hats, buttons, magnets and even thongs.

"It might be a fashion statement," the Boston man said. "It's just something different. You have some people who wear it as a political statement, and you have some who are going to wear the shirts as a joke."

The site has sold a "couple thousand" T-shirts, Feingold said. At Bryant's court appearance earlier this month, staffers of FreeKobe.com distributed "Free Kobe" T-shirts - for free.

"We're going to keep it up indefinitely," he said. "It's been such a phenomenon that 20 years from now, when people look at 2003, the Kobe Bryant trial will be part of that year. I'd like my kids to look back at what I did."

Feingold probably won't point out the Free Kobe thongs to his children. Although the thongs were selling, he dropped them.

"It was just bad taste," he said.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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