August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

What’s next for Kobe Bryant? On Oct. 9 he returns to Eagle, Colo., for a hearing regarding charges he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old at a resort June 30. Meantime, the personal and legal stakes couldn’t be higher for Bryant, 25, and his alleged victim. We sort out the key issues.

How is Bryant’s marriage holding up?

When Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, 21, wasn’t by his side during an Aug. 6 preliminary hearing, some observers saw it as evidence of a crack in the united front the couple have so far shown the public. Although the pair were spotted together at Disneyland two days later, and Bryant recently tattooed the name of their daughter Natalia Diamante, 7 months, on his right forearm, there is evidence that the marriage has seen more than its share of turmoil—even before the rape charges surfaced. On March 5, at 6:21 p.m., paramedics responded to a 911 call from the Bryant home in Newport Beach, Calif., and a woman—identified by a knowledgeable source as Vanessa Bryant—was taken to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. According to the incident report, “A friend of the patient arrived and assumed responsibility for her baby,” who was then 1½ months old. The source also says a whited-out portion of the report appears to say “the drugs had not kicked in yet.” (At the time, Bryant was at L.A.’s Staples Center getting ready to play the Indiana Pacers.) Then, on July 3—the night before Bryant and Vanessa flew to Colorado, where he was booked on suspicion of sexual assault—authorities were again summoned to the home, via a 911 call placed by Bryant. “Upon our arrival, we found a female lying in bed,” reads an EMT report. Offers of transportation to the hospital were refused.

Will his alleged victim’s rumored instability help Bryant?

According to Colorado defense attorney Scott Robinson, it’s a double-edged sword. Reports that Bryant’s alleged victim attempted suicide may damage her credibility if any accounts of erratic past behavior are ruled admissible. On the other hand, says Robinson, “the jury might feel sorry for her.”

What does the prosecution need to prove its case?

Because there are no other eyewitnesses to the alleged assault, lawyers say the case rests almost entirely on whether the jury believes the complaining witness, backed up by whatever physical evidence was gathered. “Sexual assault cases are difficult,” says Dr. Sandi Kirby, a sociologist at the University of Winnipeg and an expert on sexual abuse and athletes. “If you look at successful [prosecutions] against athletes, they are few and far between.”

Will race play a role?

“Race has everything to do with this,” insists Elizabeth Kaye, author of Ain’t No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq and the Making of A Lakers Dynasty. “If this had been a black woman, I don’t think there would be all those reporters standing outside that courthouse.” According to census records, just .3 percent of Eagle County’s 41,659 residents are black. But CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen doubts the defense will make skin color an issue: “The problem isn’t race but a small-town jury. Many people who might be jurors know the alleged victim.”

Does his fame help or hurt?

Both, say experts. At trial, Bryant’s good-guy image may win him a jury’s sympathy, but if found guilty, fame may be a minus. “No one will give him a break on sentencing,” says Denver defense attorney Dan Recht. “That will be seen as going soft on a celebrity.”

What does he have to lose?

Money is the least of it. Colorado law is tough on sex offenders. If Bryant is convicted, he could face a mandatory sentence of four years to life—even though he has no criminal record. “Kobe could go to prison—real prison,” says Recht. “He could easily do 20 years.” He may also have to undergo years of therapy and register as a sex offender. “No way is he going to get probation,” says Recht. “No one will be unwise enough to do that with all the attention being paid to this.”

J.D. Heyman

Jason Bane and Maureen Harrington in Eagle and Ron Arias, Vickie Bane and Amy Gurvitz in Los Angeles

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