April 12, 2004 12:00 PM

Get up at 4 a.m., take a two-hour flight, spend seven hours in court, fly two more hours, score 36 points, get some sleep, take another two-hour flight. So went a recent 24 hours in the strange life of Kobe Bryant, bouncing between Los Angeles Laker games and his ongoing sexual assault trial in Colorado. While it might not be apparent in his stellar play on the basketball court, what’s happening in criminal court “is always there, hanging over him,” says someone close to Bryant and his wife, Vanessa. “They think about it every day, every minute. They never travel without at least two bodyguards. They know this is the fight of their lives.”

Yet Bryant is not the only one whose world has been turned upside down. On March 24, at an Eagle, Colo., hearing, his 19-year-old accuser faced him for the first time since she was allegedly attacked on June 30. Along with her more than three hours of closed-door testimony about her sexual history—itself an unusual occurrence, given Colorado’s tough rape-shield laws—the prosecution presented an emotional letter from the accuser’s mother. In it, she begged for a speedy resolution to the case, which has already seen three months of hearings with no trial date in sight. “I would like to share with you the reality of my daughter’s life,” the woman’s mother wrote. “She has received literally hundreds of death threats…received thousands of obscene messages…. She can’t live at home, she can’t live with relatives, she can’t go to school or talk to her friends.

…As soon as she gets a job or makes a few acquaintances, someone figures out who she is, and the media arrives.”

In early March, Bryant’s accuser took a hostess job at a Florida restaurant but quit in less than a week after a tabloid reporter discovered she was there. “She was a great employee,” says the restaurant’s manager, Joshua Henderson. “But it ended when the guy from The Globe started really bothering her. She was bummed out about it. She said she was trying to get her life back together, but it wasn’t easy.”

Things are likely to only get harder, given Bryant’s legal strategy. His lawyers seem intent on proving the accuser had sex with another man within 48 hours of her encounter with Bryant and perhaps within 15 hours of the alleged assault; this could possibly provide another explanation for the tears to her vaginal area. On March 1 the defense claimed that swabs of semen taken from the accuser’s body after the incident revealed DNA that does not belong to Bryant. Considering this defense claim, “there is some basis for the belief she engaged in intimate interludes within 48 hours of meeting Bryant, even potentially afterward,” says Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson. But John Clune, the accuser’s attorney, insists those claims are “patently false. Anyone trying to prove otherwise will be chasing ghosts.” The judge in the case will soon decide how much of the accuser’s past sexual history will be allowed into evidence at trial.

Bryant’s accuser apparently held up just fine during the first round of grilling by the defense attorneys. “She walked in and out of this courtroom with her held held high,” says Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “I think that shows determination and strength.” As for Bryant, he’s doing more than just holding up. Although he has lost major endorsement deals since the incident, he is playing as well as he ever has during his nine-year career. “If it’s fun to get out on the court and play,” he said after leading the Lakers to a win over the Sacramento Kings on March 24, the day of his criminal court-to-basketball court round trip. “I feel okay right now.”

There is a long way to go, though, before Kobe Bryant or his accuser can hope to feel normal again. “It’s just weird,” says the person close to Bryant, “to be so young and so rich and in so much trouble.”

Alex Tresniowski. Vickie Bane in Eagle, Lorenzo Benet, Maureen Harrington and Mike Tharp in Los Angeles and Lori Rozsa in Delray Beach, Fla.

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