When Kobe Bryant was arrested two weeks ago after a 19-year-old Colorado woman accused him of sexual assault, the reaction from friends and fans was almost universal: that's just not like Kobe. It seemed impossible that the 24-year-old Los Angeles Laker, best known for his signature slam dunks and megawatt smile, could commit such a crime. But on Friday, the Eagle County, Colo., district attorney, Mark Hurlbert, charged Bryant with felony sexual assault. Now, as the basketball star prepares to convince a jury that his only crime was "the mistake of adultery," not rape, friends and fans are wondering this: who is Kobe Bryant?
Bryant's life on the court has been an open book--from his leap straight out of high school to the NBA in 1996 to his public rivalry with team captain Shaquille O'Neal. Yet even those who should be familiar with Bryant's every move admit the young man in the No. 8 jersey is something of an enigma. "I think a lot of people never really got to know Kobe at all," says fellow Laker Rick Fox, adding that Bryant was hard to connect with, even from the very beginning. When he arrived in Los Angeles, Bryant would dress and undress in a separate part of the Laker locker room, and to this day he prefers to hole up in his hotel room after road games instead of partying with his teammates. "He kept to himself and we let him do that. I can only imagine what it was like for him then, being so isolated," Fox says. Other teammates are less diplomatic: "The way he was so into his wife, you figured he would never stray from her. He was too goody-two-shoes to do that," says one. "But obviously we didn't know him as well as we thought." So secretive was Bryant that he apparently didn't even tell Laker management that he had gone to Colorado for knee surgery, the reason for his June 30 stay at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, where the alleged victim was working at the front desk.
Bryant's tendency to isolate himself --(coupled with his tendency to hog the ball) is strangely at odds with his public persona as the squeaky-clean Laker who speaks Italian and is faultlessly polite to everyone from reporters to hangers-on. But being a loner hasn't endeared him to his teammates, and he's had numerous run-ins with coach Phil Jackson, who's criticized him in the press for a lack of maturity and an "all about me" attitude. The alienation doesn't end at the locker-room door: after marrying an 18-year-old high-school student in April 2001, Bryant became temporarily estranged from his parents and two older sisters, who quickly moved back to their hometown of Philadelphia in a show of protest. "His family did not at all approve of the marriage," says a friend of Bryant's.
Kobe's friends say race was small part of the family's problem: Kobe's wife, Vanessa, is half Hispanic and half white. But mostly "they thought she had too much control over him and that he was way too wrapped up in her," the friend says. "He didn't even get a prenup. That's how whipped he was. Other guys in the business tried to tell him, but that's how Kobe is, stubborn to a fault and never listening to anybody about anything, even his family." When Bryant went home to Philadelphia for last year's All-Star Game and took home the MVP award, his family was nowhere in attendance, and the local crowd booed him for disloyalty to their city. "I guess I never realized how people felt about me," he told NEWSWEEK at the time. "I never saw a problem with the way I handled things. I was trying to be me."
Despite the criminal charge, the Lakers say they have no intention of keeping Bryant out of the lineup when training camp starts in September--assuming he fully recovers from the knee surgery. But it remains to be seen how much play he'll get once his trial is underway after an Aug. 6 arraignment. For now, the team is hoping that the recent addition of Karl Malone and Gary Payton will somehow distract fans' attention from Bryant's troubles. The NBA has made no official comment, but sources say the league will just wait it out and let Bryant's legal team do its job.
Meantime, Nike, McDonald's and Sprite will have to decide for themselves whether they still want Bryant as a spokesman, given the kind of public speaking he's doing these days. In other words, don't expect to see Bryant's mug on any commercials, except those advertising on the evening news. Sprite and McDonald's have been silent on the matter, as has Nike, which just signed the star to a $40 million contract. "I can't imagine that these companies will support him for long," says Harold Jones, a sports agent in Utah. "They will probably quietly pull out without much fanfare. And it's not about the charges, really. Even without them, he's been cheating on his wife and that's enough."
On Friday, a tearful Bryant appeared at the Staples Center with his wife to declare his innocence. "I love my wife," he said, while explaining that the sex he'd had in Colorado was consensual--and a mistake. "Together, we're going to fight these false accusations." Earlier that day Vanessa herself made a statement: "I know my husband made a mistake--the mistake of adultery. He and I will have to deal with that." Byrant's advisers have hinted at a possible defense that will include calling the young woman's character into question. Until the trial, Bryant can only wait and hope that his legal team is as skillful in the courtroom as he's been on the court.