Kobe Bryant is an L.A. guy, so indulging in a little retail therapy can often be the order of the day. Except this was no ordinary day. On July 21—three days after he was charged with rape—Bryant, his wife, Vanessa, and their 6-month-old daughter, Natalia, walked into an exclusive jewelry boutique in Santa Monica. Bryant had a surprise waiting for Vanessa—a stunning eight-carat purple diamond ring worth about $4 million, which he had commissioned two weeks before. Vanessa was dazzled. Kobe beamed. “They looked very happy together,” says the jeweler, Raffi, who also designed the couple’s wedding rings. “When they left, Kobe and Vanessa were holding hands.”
An act of contrition? Perhaps. But Bryant knows that a fancy diamond won’t cut much ice when it comes to the real problem he faces—the felony charge that on June 30 he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman employed at the lodge where he was staying near Vail, Colo. In announcing his decision on July 18 to pursue the case, Eagle County prosecutor Mark Hurlbert, 34, voiced confidence that he would win. “I have an ethical burden not to prosecute a case unless I can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. Later, at a news conference in Los Angeles, Bryant, 24, with Vanessa, 20, at his side, tearfully insisted that he had never forced himself on the woman, though he admitted that he had had sex with her. “I’m furious at myself,” he said, “disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery.” The accuser’s camp quickly added its voice, with a longtime friend going on TV to say that Bryant’s weepy denial had made the alleged victim “sick.”
Whatever the outcome, Bryant’s image as a wholesome superstar has, for the moment, been slam-dunked. At the very least he was in the awkward position of having to call a press conference to admit he cheated on his wife. And within days news reports began to emerge that perhaps his enviable reputation had been off the mark all along, and that he harbored a dark side that the public had never been allowed to see. One Lakers teammate, Rick Fox, told Newsweek that Bryant tended to remain aloof in the locker room and had little contact with other players off the court. An anonymous Lakers source told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, “Kobe is an extremely cold and calculating man.” All the negative publicity posed an obvious threat to Bryant’s lucrative endorsement deals with Sprite, McDonald’s and Nike, a bounty that earned him $15 million a year on top of his Lakers salary of $13.5 million. So far, though, none of his sponsors—nor his team—has disowned him. In a statement, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that while he was “saddened by the allegations against Kobe,” his star continued to have “my full support.”
By the same token, nothing could have prepared the accuser for the attacks on her reputation, with each turn of the news cycle coming at her like a buzz saw. Authorities and the press have not disclosed her name, though her identity is widely known in her hometown of Eagle. She is a former cheerleader and singer in the school choir, who tried out (unsuccessfully) for a slot on American Idol and had recently completed her freshman year at the University of Northern Colorado. Within days of her accusation, unconfirmed reports began to filter out that she had been distraught over the recent death of a close friend and a breakup with her boyfriend and that two months ago she had overdosed on over-the-counter sleeping pills. Then her name and address were posted on the Internet (a photo purported to be of the woman turned out to be wrong), a breach of the Colorado rape shield law that drew cries of outrage. “The young woman has put herself at the center of a firestorm,” says Linda Fairstein, the former prosecutor and head of the sex crimes unit in New York City. “I’d like her not to suffer more for having reported a crime.”
The case promises to get even more sordid in the months ahead. “This is going to be X-rated,” says Craig Silverman, a defense attorney not involved in the case who is also a former prosecutor in Denver. “Every sexual assault case that involves a consent defense involves dirty details, but this one could get especially bad.” For his defense team, Bryant has hired Pamela Mackey, 47, a prominent Denver attorney, and Hal Haddon, 62, who is best known for representing John Ramsey during the investigation into the murder of his daughter JonBenét.
Many outside experts believe that if the accuser did try to commit suicide, that fact could be admissible in court and perhaps impugn her credibility by raising doubts about her emotional stability. “It’s the bombshell,” says Silverman. “The defense in this case boils down to one thing, giving the jurors reasons why this woman would make a false rape allegation. This creates one.” But the prosecution may have an explosive or two in its arsenal as well. One friend of the accuser told The Denver Post on July 21 that the girl had suffered obvious physical injuries as a result of the alleged attack. Insisted Luke Bray, who has known the accuser since high school and said he had been helping console her since the incident: “She had been hurt, there’s no question about it.”
In truth, however, there is a great deal about the episode that took place in the first-floor suite at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera on June 30 that remains very much in question. That night Bryant had checked in around 10 p.m. at the exclusive lodge, accompanied by three bodyguards. The next day the 6’7″ Lakers star was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at a nearby clinic. Some of the accuser’s friends have said that she gave Bryant a brief tour of the facilities. Sometime before 11 p.m. the young woman took a room-service call from Bryant’s suite. Despite the fact that it is the lodge’s policy that front desk staff not go to guests’ rooms, she headed there anyway. Coworkers say that when she returned, somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour later, she was “visibly upset.” Around noon the next day she reported the alleged assault.
This was not the way Bryant’s life and career seemed to be heading. From the start, he was hailed as basketball royalty, a second-generation NBA player who had been schooled in the game by his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a onetime standout for the Philadelphia 76ers and then for an Italian professional league. Kobe was raised with his two older sisters in Milan until high school, when the family relocated to Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line. Drafted out of high school, Bryant played in his first NBA game in 1996 at age 18 and became the youngest player ever selected to the All-Star game. His athletic gifts and work ethic, not to mention an apparent maturity well beyond his years, seemed to assure his continued success. He quickly came to recognize the snares of celebrity, telling the Daily News Los Angeles two years ago that all the adulation sometimes unnerved him, which led to his hiring of a security detail to keep fans at bay. “There’s a lot of knuckleheads out there, and you know how things get with celebrities,” he said. “People wanted to make a name for themselves or whatever.”
His relationship with Vanessa Laine seemed to offer him a new comfort zone. They met in 2000 when he visited the filming of a video in which she had been hired as a backup dancer. At the time Vanessa was 17 and attending high school in Huntington Beach. As she began dating Bryant, the scrutiny became so intense that she was forced to drop out of school and complete her studies at home. Though he was the megawatt superstar, it was the fashion-savvy Vanessa who started picking out his clothes and helping shape his public image, to the point where some people close to the couple, including his family, found her overly controlling. “I will not let him face these accusations alone,” said Vanessa in a spirited defense of her husband. “The great person you see on the court and in public is a far greater person off the court.”
The scandal has once again cast a harsh light on a sleazy corner of the NBA culture that the league would just as soon ignore–namely, the sense of entitlement that many players seem to hold, especially when it comes to casual sex. According to Brenda Thomas, the author of the steamy 2001 novel, Threesome: Where Seduction, Power and Basketball Collide, as surely as water finds its own level, many pro players come to think that normal rules of conduct don’t apply to them. “For Kobe to get himself in this situation, I’m not surprised, regardless of the image,” says Thomas, who at one time worked as a personal assistant for another NBA star, Stephon Marbury. “They were pegging him as the next Michael Jordan. He begins to think that he can do things you or I couldn’t get away with.”
If nothing else, that sense of invulnerability, at least in Bryant’s case, is gone for good. In all likelihood his trial will get under way sometime next year in Colorado. If convicted, he could face anywhere from four years to life in prison. That, of course, is a big if. But at this point, even if he is acquitted, it is hard to see how this champion athlete can again be called a winner.
Vickie Bane in Eagle, Ron Arias and Mike Tharp in Los Angeles and Barbara Sandler in Chicago