Archive for Thursday, July 24, 2003

Opinion: What now for Kobe?

July 24, 2003

For all his on-court qualities -- silky smooth jumper, wicked first step and Jordan-like tenacity -- perhaps the most overlooked attribution Lakers guard Kobe Bryant possesses is his defense. Been named to the All NBA Defensive Team four times, he has.

I suppose it could be viewed as fitting that this ignored quality may be the life raft that carries the three-time NBA champion past another of his alleged qualities. I'm talking about the accusation that he's also a sexual offender.

Bryant, 24, who before the afternoon of Friday, July 18, carried a whistle-clean image, is charged in Eagle County, Colo., with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee. Certainly, Bryant will need his most shielding, guarded defense to move past these charges.

In a press conference, Bryant, a married man of two years and father of an infant daughter, admitted he was guilty of "adultery" and nothing more.

"I'm innocent," he proclaimed to the world. He also admitted to breaking his solemn wedding vows when having a consensual one-night stand with his accuser.

Throughout his years in the league, Bryant has been known as a stand-up, straight-laced player. He didn't release a gay-bashing, woman-hating CD like Allen Iverson. He never choked a coach like Latrell Sprewell and he never lied to a grand jury like Chris Webber.

This was no Mike Tyson incident with disaster lurking in the wings.

The only criticism ever leveled at Bryant was that he took too many shots and passed too little during the course of a game.

As he matured, he became as good a player as the NBA could offer, the closest thing to Jordan the league has ever seen -- until now.

Until that fateful night in July when the lives of two people intersected and in the same moment changed forever.

All that was and perhaps will be for Bryant is gone. His reputation is left in disarray and there is a very real possibility the best player in the league could be, and if found guilty rightfully will be, going to prison.

For his accuser, life is also forever changed. Assuming her accusation is accurate, she'll live with the pain of that night forever. And if the accusations are false, she'll be branded with a scarlet letter of being a liar.

To me, this case will boil down to nothing more than who a jury of 12 will believe. Is it the millionaire golden boy or the seemingly innocent Colorado native?

This case is a train wreck for Bryant as well as the NBA. Instead of preparing to mesh with new teammates Karl Malone and Gary Payton, instead of rehabilitating his ailing knee and piloting the Lakers back to the NBA title, Bryant is forced to deal with his upcoming trial.

And for the league, it's got to be an uncomfortable feeling wondering whether its best player will be suiting up in the prison summer league instead of the NBA Finals.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, one thing remains clear: none of us can know for sure what happened that night in Colorado. And given the nature and publicity the trial will receive, none of us probably ever will.

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