What's Next for Kobe?

The Lakers took a huge gamble earlier this summer that Kobe Bryant (search) wouldn't be convicted of rape when they signed him to a seven-year, $136.4 million contract.

Now, Bryant won't even be prosecuted.

Prosecutors' decision to drop charges Wednesday frees Bryant to resume his NBA career and try to win back the lucrative endorsement deals that were lost or suspended.

Lakers (search) spokesman John Black said the team had no immediate comment.

But this is clearly the outcome the Lakers expected.

"If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take," general manager Mitch Kupchak said July 15 when Bryant opted to remain with the team.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss said much the same thing a few days earlier.

"I just have trouble believing that won't turn out well. I don't have a contingency plan, I never thought I needed one," Buss said.

David M. Carter, a Los Angeles-area sports business consultant, believes Bryant's reputation has been so damaged his earnings outside the game will never be the same.

Before being charged in July 2003 with assaulting a then-19-year-old woman at a Colorado resort, Bryant was one of the most popular pitchmen around.

"I think consumer product companies, the McDonald's and Sprites of the world, have really washed their hands of him at this point," Carter said. "I believe that by the time he's able to restore his reputation, if he's ever able to do that, he'll be old enough to be pitching denture cream and prune juice."

Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, declined to comment.

At a shopping center near Bryant's home in Newport Beach, fans expressed relief and excitement about the future of Bryant and the Lakers.

"It's going to be a winning team," said real estate agent Kent Campbell, 39, who said he did not believe the charges against Bryant. "There's a cloud that's been lifted."

Bryant, who turned 26 last month, joined the Lakers in 1996 shortly after graduating from high school. He has established himself as one of the NBA's greatest stars.

But with the trade of Shaquille O'Neal (search) to Miami, the Bryant-led Lakers are no longer considered among the NBA's elite teams.