• U.S.

Say It Ain’t So, Kobe

8 minute read
Richard Corliss

They say big men don’t cry. But they didn’t say it last week–not if they watched Kobe Bryant speak publicly with a moist remorse that was almost Clintonian. The NBA’s youngest-ever All-Star acknowledged having committed adultery. “I love my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone,” he told reporters at the Staples Center, home of Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers. A tear scarred his cheek as he grasped the hand of his giga-gorgeous wife Vanessa and said, “You’re a blessing. You’re a piece of my heart. You’re the air I breathe. You’re the strongest person I know. And I’m so sorry for having to put you through this and having to put our family through this.”

This is an indictment that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old college student and employee of the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., while he was staying there for knee surgery. The complaint, brought by Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, reads that Bryant “unlawfully, feloniously, and knowingly inflicted sexual intrusion or sexual penetration on” his accuser, whose name was withheld by police and the press.

On June 30, Bryant left L.A. for a tendinitis operation that was to be performed the next day at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, the town of plutocrat-posh ski-resort fame. Bryant and his entourage checked in to the Lodge and Spa. Around 11 that night, his accuser, a concierge and receptionist at the hotel, went off duty. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant called his wife from his hotel room at 11:13. Some time later, perhaps around 11:30, the young woman visited Bryant’s room. Why she went there, and what happened next, is for a jury to decide.

The next morning, Bryant had his surgery. At noon the young woman, accompanied by her parents, told the Eagle County sheriff’s department that she had been assaulted. She went to Vail Valley Medical Center for tests. At 11:30 that night, some 24 hours after the alleged incident, investigators from the sheriff’s office quizzed Bryant in his room and collected evidence. Hours later, technicians at Valley View Hospital took samples of Bryant’s DNA.

Bryant fiercely denies the rape charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. He acknowledges that sex took place but insists it was consensual. “I didn’t force her to do anything against her will,” he said. “I’m innocent.”

Another star athlete charged with sexual malice? Such an item is usually confined to that burgeoning beat, the sports-page police blotter. Kobe Bryant makes it front-page news–not simply because he and Shaquille O’Neal are the Guts and Godzilla of the star-studded Lakers, not because he scored 30 points a game last season or because he went straight from high school legend to NBA phenom. Not even because he recently inked a $45 million endorsement deal with Nike. But because he is one of the NBA’s prime icons of clean and keen.

With handsome features and a name that sounds like a Pokemon toy, Bryant has the rep of a star a prim mother or an innocent kid could love. “For teenage girls especially,” says Peter Zollo of the polling firm Teen Research Unlimited, “Kobe is way up there. Where Allen Iverson’s been the bad boy, Kobe has been the pretty boy.”

And, in general, a good guy. The son of journeyman NBA forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, Kobe speaks fluent Italian from having lived in Italy for the eight years when Joe played pro ball there. At suburban Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High, where he led his team to the state championship and broke the region’s all-time high school scoring record once held by Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe had good grades and SAT scores. “He never really talked to women,” says Emory Dabney, 22, a high school teammate who stayed friendly with the star after Bryant turned pro. “He concentrated on basketball and schoolwork, so he never let women get close.”

For the next few months (a hearing is slated for Aug. 6), Bryant will be close to one woman–Pamela Mackey, his attorney, who successfully defended another sports star, Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, on a charge of domestic violence. She is likely to take a gentle approach in undermining the accuser’s testimony. “I don’t think you need to tear apart the victim,” says Phoenix attorney Darrow Soll, who got charges dropped against Mike Tyson in two recent rape cases. “What you can do is say, ‘Let’s talk about the fact that a 19-year-old girl had sex with a basketball player who was married, and maybe her boss found out. What was she to do?’ That’s the approach. It’s not: ‘She’s a liar; she’s evil; she’s a nut job.’ It’s: ‘She’s 19; she’s a young woman; she made a mistake.'”

The accuser, who lives in a comfortable two-story beige frame house with a basketball hoop above the garage door, is already the subject of speculation about her emotional frailty–classmates say she had broken up with her boyfriend and was devastated by the death of a friend–and reports about her active sex life at the University of Northern Colorado, where she has completed her first year. But under Colorado’s “rape shield statute,” a complainant’s previous sexual activity is deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Rape is an act of violence. Period.

At a rape trial, medical science can provide clues as to whether sex may have been consensual. The prosecution’s witness list, which for now comprises only medical and law-enforcement personnel, indicates that the county’s case will be argued on this “evidence.” But in any rape case, the accuser is also on trial. Perhaps for this reason, Hurlbert talked with the young woman for a long time before deciding to prosecute her allegation. He had to be convinced that she was strong enough to defend herself.

Bryant proved last week that he can be a charismatic testifier. But he may have a tougher audience in Eagle County, a Colorado district in which blacks total only 0.3% of the population. Even here, though, Bryant’s benign image may trump his color. “Kobe the superstar is in some ways raceless,” says Kenneth Shropshire, author of In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. “He could be like Michael Jordan, someone nonurban white folks think of as a superstar, and not primarily a black man.”

Color is one possible factor; class is another. There’s a financial gulf between those who pay $175,000 for a golf-club membership and those who caddy for them. Most who work in Vail can’t afford to live there. Trailer parks are home not just to carhops and maids but to social workers and the police. Could a local jury reflect the resentment the near poor have for the very rich?

Bryant has two constituencies to worry about: 12 jurors and the tens of millions of his fans whose approval pushes Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to pay big bucks for his face. Every athlete’s endorsement agreement has a public disrepute clause that lets the sponsor duck out if, as one contract reads, “any party or its principal(s) is indicted on a felony criminal charge of moral turpitude.”

Such clauses are usually invoked only on conviction, but even with acquittal a star’s luster can be tarnished. “The court of public opinion is a little more fickle than the court of law, and the same due process does not apply,” says Kevin Adler, whose Relay Sports and Event Marketing firm represents companies like Nintendo and Lego in sports partnerships. “I hate to compare Kobe to O.J., but Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, and you don’t see him getting a lot of deals these days.”

In his press conference, Bryant conceded, “I have a lot at stake” but stressed, “It has nothing to do with the game of basketball … nothing to do with endorsements … This is about our family.”

It’s about a lot of families: Bryant’s and his accuser’s and those of the kids who have seen the star as Mr. Nice Guy. A caller to the New York City sports radio station WFAN sounded heartbroken when he said he now had to take away his son’s favorite item of sports apparel: his Kobe Bryant No. 8 jersey.

Everybody has heroes. Everybody, some time or other, nurses a glamorous career dream. Bryant’s accuser did. Last November she went to Texas and tried out (unsuccessfully) for American Idol. Her audition piece was a Rebecca Lynn Howard country ballad, Forgive. How does it go? “Well you might as well’ve ripped the life/Right out of me, right here tonight,/When through the fallen tears you said,/’Can you ever just forgive?'” Those lyrics might be haunting Bryant–now not so clean, not so cool–and the two women who have shared his favors and his notoriety. –Reported by Amy Lennard Goehner and Sean Gregory/New York, Rita Healy/Eagle and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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