A Tough Summer--And Maybe A Hard Fall--For Kobe

Kobe Bryant thought his summer could get no worse. His L.A. Lakers had been knocked out of the playoffs, they were about to sign Utah's superstar Karl Malone (who could cut into Bryant's fan base) and he had to have shoulder surgery. In fact, his troubles had just begun. On July 4, Bryant, 24, was arrested for sexual assault on a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel.

One report suggests the woman, a desk clerk at the hotel, was delivering room-service food to Bryant; sources close to him say he invited her up. After an indeterminate length of time, she reportedly returned to the lobby "in hysterics"; both she and Bryant briefly checked in to local hospitals. Bryant turned himself in to the Eagle County Sheriff's Office and agreed to give DNA evidence; he was released on $25,000 bond; early this week, after the analysis of evidence taken from both Bryant and his accuser, the D.A. will decide whether to file charges. Bryant's lawyer says he's innocent, and the Sheriff's Office is already under fire from the press for issuing an arrest warrant before the D.A. had seen the evidence.

"I don't know what happened," says teammate Kareem Rush, "but I do know Kobe, and that's not the guy I know." That was the prevailing attitude among both Lakers and rival players after the arrest became public. For the past seven years, Bryant has been one of the NBA's shining stars, not just a standout player but a clean-cut alternative to the likes of Allen Iverson, known as much for off-court run-ins with police as for on-court prowess. Kobe's No. 8 is the jersey most often purchased by fans.

A number of NBA players have said Bryant's accuser, a college student and former high-school cheerleader, is well known as a basketball groupie. That's not what people say in her hometown--though she did play a Conrad-crazy fan in a school production of "Bye Bye Birdie." Acquaintances call her "a good girl from a good family" who wouldn't bring a false accusation--though they also hint at a family estrangement and a recent "hard time." A high-school classmate told NEWSWEEK the teen was a singer who'd tried out for "American Idol" last year: "She's a very nice girl, and I don't know anyone who had problems with her. But I don't want to comment one way or another on this case, because I don't know what happened."

Bryant, too, has had family troubles, ever since his marriage to an 18-year-old high-school student. His parents and sisters moved from the homes he'd bought them in L.A. back to Philadelphia; Bryant's father has said he's never seen his 5-month-old granddaughter. "That's been real difficult for Kobe," says an NBA player who asked not to be named. "Now he has to deal with this--I'm not sure he can deal with this--without support." One source told NEWSWEEK Bryant's wifehas kicked him out. Whether that's true or not, we can confirm that Bryant, his wife and his accuser will not enjoy the rest of the summer.