Kobe Off The Court

It was Saturday night in suburban Philadelphia, spring of 1995, and 17-year-old Kobe Bryant had invited his high-school sweetheart, Jocelyn Ebron, on a date. Most other teenagers in the upper-middle-class enclave of Lower Merion had gone to the multiplex to sneak into the R-rated "Bad Boys" and get busy in the dark. But Kobe didn't have a lot of experience with the rituals of American puppy love. Raised under the watchful eye of a doting mother who fixed him the same breakfast every morning ("eggs, bacon and Cream of Wheat on the side," remembers Ebron), and a basketball-coach father who achieved moderate NBA success, Kobe had one goal in life: scoring on the basketball court. Which is probably why 16-year-old Jocelyn found herself spending the evening in the Bryant family den, watching videotapes of Kobe's hoop exploits as a kid in Italy. "He wanted to watch them all the time," says Ebron. "I didn't mind, because I wanted to do what he wanted to do." In four years of dating Kobe Bryant, Jocelyn Ebron spent many a chaste night as he sat glued to the TV, watching the same videos and highlight reels of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson over and over. "Looking back," says Ebron, now a 24-year-old social worker, "it was sort of selfish of him."

Selfish is a word lobbed with amazing frequency at the 25-year-old Bryant. Despite being one of basketball's biggest stars, with a boy-next-door demeanor to match, Bryant has suffered from a reputation as an aloof ball hog who doesn't quite know what it means to be a team player. Those close to Bryant--and there are precious few--say what appears to be selfishness is in fact single-mindedness, a laser-like focus on becoming the best basketball player in the world. But the same quality that allowed him to dominate the game at such an astonishingly young age is also his most dangerous weakness. Bryant has been so focused on his career on court, and so sheltered from social development off it, that he may not have picked up some necessary tools in his journey from boy to man, family and friends say. The sad irony is that Bryant is now more famous than he ever dreamed, though hardly for the reasons he imagined.

Charged this summer with raping a 19-year-old concierge at the posh Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., Bryant enters his eighth season with the Lakers as the most-talked-about man in sports. At a preliminary hearing scheduled for Thursday that will be followed worldwide, from the Staples Center in L.A. to Bryant's old hometown of Rieti, Italy, Colorado prosecutors plan to lay out their case against him. The prosecution is expected to introduce photographs showing injuries the 6-foot-6 athlete allegedly inflicted on the young woman, which people familiar with the case say include bruises on the neck and vaginal tearing (District Attorney Mark Hurlbert has said he expects to spend $45,500 on expert witnesses, including specialists on strangulation, sexual assault and trauma). The prosecution may also introduce a videotaped statement from the accuser and an audiotape of statements Bryant made to Colorado authorities the day after the incident.

With the specter of such potentially damning evidence spilling into the court of public opinion, Bryant's defense team could decide to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and head straight for trial, which likely wouldn't begin until next year. The defense team of Pamela Mackey and Hal Haddon suffered a big defeat last week when Judge Frederick Gannett did not grant their request to see the accuser's medical records. Bryant has said the sex was consensual, that his only sin was "adultery," and his lawyers are hoping to raise doubts about the young woman's credibility and mental state. They had hoped the medical records would provide ammunition, especially about two apparent suicide attempts the young woman made in the months before Bryant met her (the judge last week did order police to turn over tapes of 911 calls made from her home). Judge Gannett also refused the defense's request to compel the young woman to testify at the preliminary hearing--a long shot in most rape cases, let alone one in which two men have already been arrested for threatening the woman's life.

What actually took place in Bryant's hotel room on the night of June 30 will be for a jury to determine. So far, Bryant, the woman and their respective attorneys have all declined to talk about the facts of the case, under a gag order from Judge Gannett. Bryant initially told police he hadn't had any sexual interaction with his accuser. Three weeks later he announced tearfully in a press conference that he and the woman did have sex, but that it was consensual. Since the incident, sources close to both sides have offered NEWSWEEK versions of what they believe happened. People close to and sympathetic to Kobe painted this picture:

Bryant first met the blond, girlish-looking concierge when he checked into the hotel, where he planned to recuperate from knee surgery. The two began flirting almost immediately, and the woman gave him a personal tour of the grounds, including the gym and sauna. Later, Bryant called the front desk to order some food, and the woman delivered it to his room. Bryant called again to complain that his whirlpool bath wasn't working; the young woman offered to check out the problem herself, and Bryant invited her to come back to his room when she was off work. She returned, and the two embarked on a consensual sexual encounter.

But early on in the encounter, Bryant became anxious that he wasn't using a condom, afraid that he might get the young woman pregnant, according to the sources close to Bryant. At some point, she started yelling for him to stop--which he did, the sources say--but she kept crying hysterically and was insistent on leaving. Bryant started to panic and tried to keep her from leaving until she calmed down, the sources say. He attempted to put ice on her eyes, which were swollen with tears, and pleaded with her to stay and talk. But she insisted that she had to go back to the concierge desk. Bryant asked her to return, and she told him she would. She never did. The next thing he knew, the county sheriff was asking him to go to a local hospital and provide a DNA sample.

A friend of the accuser tells a different story. This friend, who requests anonymity, told NEWSWEEK she had spoken with the accuser and the accuser's ex-boyfriend, who appeared Saturday on CBS's "48 Hours." According to the friend, [the accuser] was "attacked as soon as she [the accuser] walked through the door." There was "aggressive groping with no warning," the friend says, "followed by sex."

How these competing versions compare with what prosecutors and defense lawyers will present in court remains to be seen. Hurlbert, citing the judge's gag order, declined to comment; Bryant's team did the same.

Now, left to ponder how this wunderkind came to be accused of a crime that could land him in prison for life, Bryant's family and friends are deconstructing the player's life with even more ferocity than the media are. They look at Kobe's antisocial behavior--declining to join in his teammates' pregame war chants, refusing to hang out with his fellow Lakers after a game--and ask themselves what went wrong. Could Kobe have somehow avoided the situation he's in now if only he'd taken his place in the circle of his peers, instead of standing apart from them?

Even in high school, Bryant could be a loner. Having grown up with his parents and two older sisters in Europe, where his father played pro ball for an Italian team, Kobe had a difficult time adjusting to life in the States when he returned at the age of 14. "It was tough because I didn't know English really well, and I really didn't know the different lingo that black culture had," Bryant told NEWSWEEK in a lengthy 1999 interview. "So I had to learn two languages when I got back here, and that was tough. But if I didn't do it, I would have never fit in. And kids are tough, you know? You got to be just like them or else."

Fitting in was a bit easier on the court. The funny accent, the doting parents, the love of all things "Star Wars"--all that disappeared with a single, graceful slam-dunk. "He had a focus and concentration that is completely rare for any kid, but that's what made his game so good," says his high-school coach, Greg Downer. He also had a big ego and a temper. "That was his world and he was the king, and he let you know it in no uncertain terms," says one of his former teammates at Lower Merion.

Kobe was also royalty at home. His sisters Sharia and Shaya were his biggest cheerleaders. His mother, Pam, did his laundry, cooked all his meals, kept him on schedule and never missed his games. His father, Joe, focused on building a lucrative career for his son, landing him an agent and an endorsement deal with Adidas even before he was out of high school. "Everything sort of focused on him and around him," remembers Ebron. "His two sisters seemed to just accept that. He was the only son and the king of it all, really."

Race was also a key ingredient in this family brew. "It's the classic story that happens in black families," says Kevin Powell, author of a new book, "Who's Going to Take the Weight? Manhood, Race and Power in America." "It's a classic story that happens in black families, where the mother raises the daughters and spoils the sons. The community tends to be very protective of young black men because of what they often face in the world. That can sometimes backfire." Powell maintains that Kobe's youth in Italy did nothing to prepare him for the realities of growing up in America, particularly as a black man. "I really don't think his parents understood what having him grow up there in his formative years did to his ability to communicate with others, particularly African-Americans. It emotionally stunted him."

Jocelyn Ebron didn't see any of those defects when she met young Kobe at a family barbecue she'd been invited to by his cousin. "He was just this mild-mannered, quiet guy," remembers Jocelyn, who was attending a Roman Catholic girls' school at the time. "I liked him because he wasn't a playa with a lot of game. You know, the kind of guy who's trying to date 10 girls at the same time and be so cool." Kobe was smitten, and soon Jocelyn became a fixture around the Bryant home, eating meals with the family and watching Kobe's basketball tapes.

If Jocelyn didn't realize that her boyfriend's career came first, she got a dose of reality when Kobe announced that his prom date would be the teen R&B star Brandy, whom he'd met for a split-second at the Essence Magazine awards. "He told me that his agent wanted him to ask Brandy because it would help him gain attention," says Ebron. "I was hurt, but he said it was for the best, so I had to accept that." Jocelyn wasn't the only one caught off guard. Brandy "didn't know who he was," says an associate of the singer's. But she thought he was cute after seeing a picture and remembering him from the awards show; besides, "she wanted to go to a prom." Reporters were on hand to record every precious moment, as Brandy was whisked away from the Bryant family's Tudor-style home after some shutter time with his beaming parents and grandparents. As one friend of the family observed: "They seemed like a warm, normal family just proud of their son on a big day. But I guess looking back, it all seemed sort of orchestrated."

In fact, much of Bryant's life was orchestrated by his parents. Instead of pushing Kobe to go to college (he was an honors student and scored 1080 on his SAT), Joe Bryant worked overtime with the agent he'd hand-picked, Arn Tellum, to make sure his son would be a Laker come draft day, 1996. When the Lakers drew a low number and Kobe was scooped up by the Charlotte Hornets, Joe helped broker a deal that saw Vlade Divac traded to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant. Kobe relocated to Los Angeles that summer, family in tow, and settled with them in a six-bedroom, six-bath mansion he bought in Pacific Palisades. Meanwhile, his mother tried to nurture his budding relationship with Brandy, who was starring in the hit UPN TV show "Moesha." "His parents and her parents were regularly in contact about the two," says a source close to both families. "They thought a true romance was bound to happen when they lived in the same city."

There was just one problem. Brandy wasn't swept off her feet. On their second date, Bryant took her to Atlantic City to see Barry White, which might have appealed to "Ally McBeal" fans, but Brandy preferred hip-hop to quiet storm. And the singer would have enjoyed going out on Saturday night instead of spending it at Kobe's house. "He wasn't this wild guy who wanted to do fun things," says a friend of the singer's. "He'd lived in this cocoon provided by his family. Brandy liked to live life."

People have called Bryant the Test Tube Baby of the NBA, one of the first high-schoolers who sprung fully formed into the NBA and became a superstar. But inside the Laker camp, it was apparent that Bryant had missed out on a few life lessons. Laker coach Del Harris was vocal with his opinion that the precocious guard should have attended college first. "This is a man's game," Harris told NEWSWEEK at the time. "I don't have time as a coach to coddle him after the men come down on him after missing a shot." And they came down on him hard. "It was clear that Kobe just didn't understand the way things work on a team," says a former Laker. "He came in wanting to shine from the very beginning. He didn't go to the older guys like most younger guys usually do. They wait and learn from everyone else." In a sport where 80 percent of the players are black, the idea of giving older players their respect takes on huge importance. Bryant's lack of deference drove a wedge between him and the team's new captain, Shaquille O'Neal, who'd just signed a lucrative contract to come to Los Angeles from Orlando. Tired of sharing the spotlight in Florida with Penny Hardaway without winning a title, the 7-foot-1 center wanted a team he could control. But Bryant wasn't about to be second best on the court. "I think some of the guys thought he held himself above everyone else," says Billy Hunter, president of the NBA Players Association. "They had issues with him because of that attitude." Other players thought he was plain arrogant. "We're all arrogant, but Kobe just had more confidence in his ability," says Cuttino Mobley, a friend of Bryant's and a shooting guard for the Houston Rockets.

Bryant didn't make any friends on the team by challenging Shaq, and it didn't help that he preferred early on to change away from the others in the locker room and disappear under his headphones in the back of the team plane. After games on the road, instead of hanging out with the team, he would sit in his room and watch videos. Sometimes it was "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," which his mother would slip into his bag when she packed it for away games. But he would also catch movies his parents never let him see at home, R-rated stuff like "Scarface" and "The Godfather." "They had kept him from anything negative, violent and overly sexual," says Rebecca Tonahill, who became friendly with Bryant during his rookie year. "They thought they were doing him a favor, but they really weren't. He needed to know these things, if just for a reference point when hanging with the boys." His rookie season ended on an especially sour note when, in the last game of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz, Bryant got the pass and shot an air ball like no other. He returned with his family to Philly for the summer to lick his wounds. "He would keep saying, 'They already hate me'," Ebron recalls. " 'Now they just hate me more'. "

Bryant decided to suck it up and use the failure as motivation. He spent the summer adding muscles to his lanky frame, and claimed he was making 1,000 practice shots a day to avoid ever missing another one. When he returned to L.A., he even extended an olive branch to O'Neal and the rest of the team, inviting them to his 19th- birthday party. But back on the court, not much had changed. "Kobe is the kind of guy who has to learn the same lesson again every season," says a former teammate. Bryant's ball-hogging and headstrong play grated on O'Neal so much that at one practice he finally let loose and knocked Bryant to the floor. The two went at it and had to be broken up. "I think he really thought he could take Shaq," a player who witnessed the incident says, laughing. "I have to give him that: he has no fear of anything."

After that incident, Bryant continued isolating himself. On rare occasions he would take in a movie with Derek Fisher or Travis Knight, generally considered the nicest men on the team. Fisher himself was no party animal; he preferred reading his Bible in the locker room and praying with the team chaplain. Yet he'd found a way to fit in, going to dinners with the team, but often skipping the club scene. Bryant never seemed to see that as an option, and other players interpreted it as arrogance. "He's never really been a guy to hang out, not even in high school," says Mobley, who knew Bryant in Philly. "He's a private dude and I think many guys just didn't understand that. And when you add that he wasn't from the inner city, like most of us, they really didn't understand him. And what you don't understand, you don't like."

That cuts both ways. To Bryant's mind, he was doing himself a favor by not hanging out with his teammates. "I would never get into trouble like Mike Tyson," he once declared to some fellow Lakers. "It was important to him not to be viewed as a typical NBA player," says Bryant's friend Steve Stoute, a former music executive he met during his second season. In fact, Kobe may have missed out on some valuable career advice he'd never get from Jerry West. NBA players, like rock stars, have lots of groupies, and it isn't unusual to find plenty of action after the game. But there are also rules of conduct off the court, and players usually swap the do's and don'ts over dinner after a game. Rule No. 1: Let your crew approach the woman first, to size her up. One baller makes his bodyguards spell out in plain language to potential one-night-stands what the night's activities will entail. If she hesitates, she's turned away. Rule No. 2: Give nice parting gifts. One NBA star is known to travel with a treasure chest of diamond tennis bracelets to hand to conquests in appreciation.

Not that Bryant needed tennis bracelets back then. After things fizzled with Brandy, he developed crushes on several other black starlets, from supermodel Tyra Banks to Destiny's Child members Kelly Rowland and Beyonce Knowles. He even sent roses to Venus Williams when she won her first Wimbledon championship. But there were no real sparks. "He would get frisky with me and wanted to go all the way, but he knew what 'no' meant," says one of the stars he dated. "He understood it clearly. I can't see him now not knowing the difference." In late 1999, when he was 21, Bryant met the girl who would put an end to his bachelor days. Vanessa Laine, 16, aspiring model and high-school sophomore, was working as a background dancer in a Snoop Dogg video that was shooting at the same studio where Bryant was trying to film his own rap video. (For a brief moment, Bryant wanted a future as a rap star.) The two clicked immediately. "He was into her," recalls Snoop.

Soon, Bryant was picking up Laine at school in his black Mercedes and dropping her off in the mornings. (The teenager was living with her stepgrandfather at the time and had lots of freedom.) When TV news crews got wind of the romance, they regularly began flying helicopters over the Marina High campus in Huntington Beach, Calif., to get shots of the couple. The courtship caused such a stir that school authorities banned Bryant from coming near campus or attending any school events with her. Marina High officials declined to discuss the matter. "It just set this bad example for the school and the kids, but Kobe didn't understand what the message was when he dropped her off early in the morning," says his friend Tonahill. Bryant's eventual answer to the problem was to pay for Vanessa to be home-schooled.

As disapproving as school officials were, it was nothing compared with the disappointment of Bryant's family, who watched as Kobe became "unnaturally attached" to Vanessa, as one family friend put it. With her long, fire-engine-red fingernails and black lipliner, Vanessa had little in common with the successful young women Kobe had romanced in the past. The family thought she was too young and uncultured, and the fact that she wasn't black--Laine's mother is Hispanic and her father is white--didn't help. His teammates didn't know what to make of Vanessa, either. "We all knew he got so attached to her because he needed a friend, someone to hang out with," says a fellow Laker. "I'm not sure if it was love, or he was just happy that someone accepted him with no complaints. He didn't understand that she was a kid and she was in awe of him." When Tonahill asked Kobe what he saw in the 16-year-old, he responded, "She's pure, and innocent, and not jaded by the world."

Even though his family hoped the relationship was a passing fancy, in public they tried to be supportive, appearing at games with Vanessa and her mother and stepfather, and coming together at the end of the 2000 season to celebrate what would be the first of three consecutive championships for Bryant and the Lakers.

But it didn't last. when Kobe proposed to Vanessa with a seven-carat diamond engagement ring and announced that she would be moving into the Pacific Palisades mansion, the family exploded, a person close to the situation said. They pointed out to him that Vanessa and her mother were spending a great deal of Kobe's money on Rodeo Drive, and that the Laine family was in tough financial straits. They pleaded with Kobe to take it slow, or at the very least to get a solid prenuptial agreement. It was a dicey subject to broach, given that Kobe's father, sisters and brother-in-law were all working for him in various capacities. Angered and insulted, Bryant withdrew.

"He was so torn by that situation, so upset about the directions he was being pulled," said Tonahill. It wasn't just his family who disapproved of the marriage. Laker coach Phil Jackson encouraged him to hold off for a few years. Reportedly, Michael Jordan and a couple of other athletes also made calls to Bryant suggesting that he take it slow, or at least get a prenup. "He just said, 'I can make the money back'," says a player who tried to advise him. "He was like, 'She can have it, because I'm young and I don't see it ending like that way anyway'." His agent, Tellum, was so frustrated by Bryant's refusal to get a prenuptial agreement that he stopped representing him. In April 2001, Bryant married Laine in a small Catholic church in Dana Point. None of his family or teammates was there.

Soon after, Bryant sold the Pacific Palisades mansion, sending the family packing for Philadelphia. "He did what he did because he wanted to be a man who was independent and handled his responsibilities. That situation was about him growing, plain and simple," Stoute says.

Kobe didn't talk to his family again until September 11, 2001, when he called his mother to make sure they were all safe. His mother tried to play peacemaker by inviting Kobe and Vanessa for dinner during the holidays in Philadelphia, but Vanessa hedged, and Kobe declined. The following February, the couple went to Philadelphia for the All-Star Game. His old high school used the occasion to retire his jersey, and his parents attended the Friday-night ceremony, sitting on the opposite side of the auditorium from his wife. They never made eye contact. The family didn't attend Sunday's All-Star Game, where Bryant was booed by the East Coast crowd when he was named MVP of the game. He seemed close to tears, and would later say his family's absence hurt as much as the crowd's reaction.

Still, Bryant was building his own family. That summer, he and Vanessa announced she would be having a baby. Finally, it seemed as if Bryant had something to share with his teammates. "Before, he didn't really have a lot in common with some of the players. But with a wife and kid, there were more experiences to share," Laker Rick Fox told NEWSWEEK this past April. When Bryant drew Mark Madsen's name for the team gift exchange last Christmas, he ignored the suggested $100 spending limit and bought his unfashionable teammate eight custom-made Italian suits. Bryant was also loosening up, due to the influence of three bodyguards he'd hired in 2001. As he distanced himself from family, the bodyguards became the posse he'd never had. They encouraged him to go bungee jumping, to drink and to hang out. In short, to be the playa he'd never been.

When Natalia was born last January, Bryant seemed to be at the top of his game both professionally and personally. In interviews, he credited his newborn daughter with giving him the motivation to score an astonishing 40 points in nine consecutive games. But things didn't sound heavenly at home. Vanessa hadn't attended a game since late fall; everyone assumed it was just because of the baby. Bryant's teammates noticed him interacting more with women on the road, but thought nothing of it, given his choirboy reputation. In fact, Bryant had been drifting away from his wife for some time, friends say.

By March, NEWSWEEK has learned, Bryant was in contact with a divorce lawyer. When Vanessa learned about the meeting, people close to Bryant say, she had to be rushed to the hospital. Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach confirms only that an "adult woman" was brought to the hospital by ambulance from the Bryants' home in Newport Beach and was placed on advanced life support. Paramedics say there were only three people at the Bryant home. The "adult woman" was taken to the hospital and treated. Paramedics say they saw no evidence of a crime.

The following month the Los Angeles Times ran an interview with Bryant's father in which he talked about the family split, something Kobe had successfully avoided talking about for nearly two years. The article did open a dialogue between father and son, and later that month, Joe Bryant got to see his granddaughter for the first time.

He even managed to catch a Lakers game, something he hadn't done for two years. But the season ended with a whimper and more tears for Kobe, as San Antonio trounced the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. Bryant decided he would take the summer to mend a couple of nagging injuries. In May, he flew to New York for shoulder surgery. To fix his bad knee, Bryant decided to go to one of the nation's top specialists, who practiced in Colorado. The outpatient surgery was scheduled for the morning of July 1.

Whatever happened between Bryant and his accuser the night before his surgery, he clearly didn't think it would have the consequences it did. The next day, Bryant played checkers in the lobby with his bodyguards, and he was on time for his surgery appointment the next morning. After Bryant had returned to the hotel, still foggy from sedatives, police contacted him and requested that he provide a DNA sample at an area hospital. Accompanied by his bodyguards, Bryant began rattling off random bits of information to police, including, oddly, memories from his childhood in Italy, people close to Bryant say. Back in Los Angeles for Independence Day, Bryant received a call from the Eagle County Sheriff's Office informing him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He returned to Colorado with Vanessa that weekend to be booked, and was released on $25,000 bail. On July 18, Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert filed a single count of felony sexual assault against Bryant. That afternoon in L.A., Kobe and Vanessa appeared at the Staples Center to give his version of events. "I know that my husband has made a mistake--the mistake of adultery," Vanessa said in a prepared release. "He and I will have to deal with that."

Publicly, the ordeal appears to have brought the couple closer together. Kobe bought Vanessa a $4 million diamond ring. They showed up arm in arm, with matching leather bracelets proclaiming their love, at the Teen Choice Awards. They went to Disneyland. They even attended a retirement party for Laker Brian Shaw at Shaq's Beverly Hills mansion last month. "I've spoken with Kobe several times since this happened," says his friend Stoute. "He's holding up well. He's a strong guy with confidence in himself and the character not to let this bring him down. He has a focus that's amazing, and he's able to weather anything without it affecting his performance."

Last week Bryant missed the first day of Laker training camp in Honolulu, claiming he was "under the weather." But he showed up on day two, playing only a little basketball due to his gimpy knee. Toward the end of practice on Saturday, a pack of reporters were led in and swarmed around Bryant. "You can't imagine what it's like, what I'm going through," he said. "But this is my job. I came out to do it well." He's "terrified," he admits; his life has been an emotional "roller coaster. You have your good days, you have your bad days." Back among his teammates, a towel draped around his neck and a basketball in his hands, Bryant seemed to be savoring what surely would be one of the few good days for some time to come.