Bryant's Legal Eagle

As Kobe Bryant struggled to get his head back into basketball for the NBA season tip-off this week, the world's focus remained on another match, this one in a small court in Eagle, Colo. On Monday, Judge Frederick Gannett announced that the basketball star would indeed stand trial for sexual assault. But in the same breath, he made it clear that he didn't think much of the evidence the prosecution had presented in the preliminary hearing. A chastened District Attorney Mark Hurlbert told reporters that he did have a strong case--then headed off to file a motion asking the court to sanction Bryant's legal team for conducting "a campaign," complete with alleged media leaks and dirty pool in court, to smear the 19-year-old accuser.

By the time the dust settled, one thing was clear: Kobe's legal team was doing a skillful job of getting him back in the game. In the three weeks since prosecutors introduced damning testimony that Bryant had grabbed his accuser by the neck, bent her over a chair and raped her, the defense team of Pamela Mackey and her mentor Hal Haddon has succeeded in shifting attention to the young woman's credibility. Despite initial furor over Mackey's questions about her recent sexual history, Judge Gannett agreed it was admissible. The result was a public discussion about a semen stain that wasn't Bryant's found on underwear the woman wore to a rape examination the day after the alleged June 30 attack. Bryant has maintained the sex was consensual, and Mackey elicited testimony from a detective that raised questions as to just when the young woman said no.

Operating out of an elegant Denver mansion with a swimming pool and billiard table, Mackey and Haddon are seasoned trial attorneys whose method of legal warfare combines exhaustive preparation with an instinct for the jugular. "Pam is always on the attack for her client, not on defense," says attorney Larry Pozner. Despite the tailored suits and piercing interrogations, Mackey, 47, bucks the stereotype of the ruthless, high-paid defense attorney. She represented indigent clients in the public defender's office: "Pam had an incredible dedication to people who had nothing, who were nobody," says Mark Johnson, her former boss there. In 1994 she returned to Haddon's firm, where she'd worked briefly before and after law school. Among her big wins, Mackey succeeded in having domestic-violence charges dropped against Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, who denied the charges.

Though Mackey is the public face for the Bryant case, Haddon, 62, is the more experienced counsel. He defended gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's innocence when a movie producer claimed he had groped her. Charges were dropped. After JonBenet Ramsey was murdered and investigators looked at her parents as potential suspects, her father, John Ramsey, tapped Haddon. No charges were filed. Haddon is also politically connected: he advised Gary Hart's presidential campaigns and is a big Democratic fund-raiser. But Haddon and his firm are surprisingly media-phobic. In a lecture advising Colorado lawyers how to deal with the press, Haddon showed a clip from Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry," in which the sixth level of hell is reserved for serial killers and lawyers who appear on TV. (The media, it turns out, were just one flight down.)

How nasty a fight are Mackey and Haddon prepared to wage? "I think she will attack [Kobe's accuser's] story, as opposed to her character," says Jeralyn Merritt, a defense lawyer. "She's not mean-spirited." After Bryant is arraigned Nov. 10, his team will begin months of skirmishing over what evidence can be used at the trial, which his lawyers will likely seek to delay until the NBA season is over. That may allow the Laker to concentrate on basketball, but it leaves the question of his guilt or innocence hanging in the court of public opinion for a very long time.