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NBA: Kobe's trial by reputation

Mark Woods

You’ll have heard the well-known fairytale of the kid who went from rags to riches and moved from the projects of the inner city to the palatial mansions of Beverley Hills – just because he could fire a ball through a hoop. Kobe Bryant was never that guy.

You know the story about the young prospect who had to pay his dues and take the long, hard road to the top before he became the undisputed idol of the National Basketball Association – the best among the best in the world. The Los Angeles Lakers number eight didn’t go down that path.

You’ll be familiar with the legend of the clean-cut family man, a father of one with a whiter than white image and a smile to match. The Hollywood hero who has corporate America lining up at his doorstep offering bucket-loads of dollars to endorse their products. That guy was Kobe. 

Not any more.

His life changed on the night of June 30 2003. The place was a small secluded hotel in the popular ski resort of Vail in the mountains of Colorado. His alias was Javier Rodriguez, checking in with two bodyguards into a first floor room. Bryant had come here without the Lakers knowledge to have surgery on a troublesome knee injury and at 11.13pm he called Vanessa, his beautiful young wife who was at home with their baby daughter.

Having a child, Kobe told me months before, had changed his life. “It’s unbelievable,” he had smiled with pride. It only added to the myth - the superstar who had the perfect life. But the bigger they are, the harder they fall and when a 19 year old hotel receptionist came to his suite just before midnight, the drop began.

24 hours later, Vail’s sheriff turned up at Bryant’s door after the girl concerned had gone to the police with an accusation of rape. After questioning, he was freed but on July 4 – Independence Day – it was announced that he had been formally arrested suspicion of felony sexual assault and false imprisonment, crimes which carry up to 20 years behind bars. “When everything comes clean, it will all be fine, you'll see,” he said tearfully with his wife at his side. “You know I would never do something like that.”

Do we really know the real Kobe Bryant? Was it the young pup who had confounded the experts by skipping college and going straight to the pros at the age of 18 where he quickly proved himself the Heir Apparent to Michael Jordan? Intelligent, utterly self-confident and ferociously ambitious, he was the perfect fit for the Lakers and their celebrity following.

He was never poor. His father Joe ‘Jellybean’ saw to that. A journeyman in the NBA before accumulating lots of lira in the Italian League, he gave his son a comfortable upbringing and a genetic feel for the game. There were no rough edges, no arrests or gang affiliations. 

McDonald's, Sprite, Nutella and sports form Spalding liked the look. They handed over a whopping £13 million each year to associate Bryant with their brand names, the Lakers throwing in another eight mil in salary for good measure.

Undoubtedly he deserved it. Assisted by legendary coach Phil Jackson and mammoth colleague Shaquille O’Neal, he helped the Lakers to three NBA Championships and was a regular fixture at the league’s All Star Game. Yet while the talent is undiminished, Kobe sits behind the table a changed man in more ways than one. 

There are tattoos streaking up his arms. A wariness that wasn’t there before. It’s hard enough being on trial when you’re Joe Nobody. But when you’re in a job when you have to face 20,000 fans and a hungry posse of reporters every night, there is no hiding place. So, I ask, how can you get away from the madness of King Kobe?

“It's more of an escape when I step on the basketball court,” he explains. “I get to have fun. I get to just play. It's a place I've been familiar with since I was six and it feels good to be out there.  You have to be able to separate it. The game is so much fun to play. You just let it all hang out. It's enjoyable.

“I just let it go. That's something I learnt from Phil. To be able to stay in the moment. To live every day as it comes.” So where is he happiest? “Practice. And the games. I enjoy practice more than I do the games. I've always enjoyed that part.”

The games have been hard, particularly at the outset of this past season. Everywhere he went, there were signs in the crowd and hecklers pronouncing their own judgements. After all, he’d admitted adultery with the young woman. That was enough to offend the moral minority. For others, the taunting was something Bryant just had to ignore. “Fans are just being fans. They'll take the opportunity to boo to get their team riled up. I just take it as that.”

There were jeers back in Vail too. As well as cheers from a loyal support which has gathered outside the courthouse for every chapter in this case. Through preliminary hearings he pled his innocence. And now the trial is in full flow 11 months after the alleged incident, the minute details of the evidence at hand are being picked apart by the Colorado DA and the biggest cluster of legal commentators since OJ was in the dock.

In court by day. On court by night. Lesser mortals would have thrown in the towel and hung up their boots – temporarily at least. Astonishingly Bryant has so often waved goodbye to his attorneys at close of play, hopped on a private jet and dashed across America to make it in time for tip-off. Never once have his traumas affected his play. I wonder if he ever regrets not accepting the advice of those who thought he should concentrate completely on proving his innocence. Without a second’s hesitation, he looks me in the eye. "No. Not for one moment.”

The circus surrounding the Lakers has been no laughing matter. Not just because of Kobe. After losing their crown last season, LA’s finest re-built in readiness for another crack at the Championship. They added Karl Malone and Gary Payton, two of the NBA’s old guard who took massive pay-cuts in the hope of earning a winner’s ring before they retired. With arguably the two best basketballers on the planet already there, nothing less than a title was expected despite Bryant’s distractions. 

“It's been a rollercoaster season,” he conceded. Four superstars. Just one ball to share around. It wasn’t long before the bickering began and the egos threatened to burst. The champs looked like chumps. Slowly though, the plan came together. The Lakers won their Division. Streamrollered through the play-offs. And then reached the Finals where their opposition, the Detroit Pistons, were expected to be no greater an irritation than a fly on the back of an elephant.

Bryant was better than ever and there was even an uneasy truce called between him and Jackson. The Lakers chief, above all else, is a supreme motivator. He turned Michael Jordan from great to the greatest by teaching him to take the ‘I’ out of team. After leading the Chicago Bulls to six championships, he pulled off another trio in LA with Bryant as his talisman.

However there have been regular clashes between the two. “Our relationship has always been kind of dicey anyway but we've managed to be successful in that process,” Bryant admits. “I have a lot of respect for Phil because he understands the game so much and his leadership capabilities as far as directing a team, getting a team to reach its maximum level. 

"It's always been kind of a push and pull relationship with Phil because he knows I like to challenge everything. And challenges everything. Like if he says 'run this down the other end', I'm going to say 'why? How does that work. This is what I think'. Because I want to learn. Our relationship has always been that way and I don't see why it should change.”

It might though, very soon. Bryant knows his worth. If he has a visible fault, it is cockiness bordering on the arrogant. Big Shaq, at seven feet and close to 30 stone, casts a giant-sized shadow. Kobe, it appears, would like more of the spotlight to himself.

So on July 1, he will trigger an escape clause in his contract and entertain offers from around the league, the Lakers included. “I want to opt out and look at different options. I've never had the opportunity to do that before,” he outlines.

Puzzlingly though, he adds: “But I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life. I've been a Lakers fan since I was six. It was a dream come true for me to play here.”

He won’t quit because of the fans. "Since I've come here, since I was 17 playing the Summer League in Long Beach, there's been love from them. I appreciate that so much. That part upsets me, when people write I've made up my mind that I'm leaving. That's just not true. They've had my back since Day 1. That's why I continue to go out and play hard every night, no matter what's going on.”

So is he in or out then? Even Derek Fisher, his closest ally in the Lakers line-up has no clue. "If he chooses to do that because of how smart and how intelligent a man he is, I would have to respect whatever reasons or whatever mind set he has. In terms of why he'd want to go elsewhere and have a new start in a new place, or new challenges, Kobe's always had a strong desire to be the best in this league, not just one of the best guys on a team. 

“Is it unfair to judge him because he has individual goals he wants to accomplish still? He's still going after that and America is all about going after dreams. Sometimes that means going against the grain and going against what everyone else thinks you should do, to do what is what you feel is best for you as a person and what you feel in your heart is right. We'd all have to respect that if he feels he should do that.”

One stumbling block may be Jackson. Bryant has hinted he’d like a new coach who will give him a freer reign to show off. “Of course I care who is the coach next year. I do care from that standpoint.” The ex-Bulls chief has hinted Bryant may get his wish. “Right now I would say that it's a pretty slim chance that I'll be back coaching next year.” Which may increase the Lakers chances of winning him over.

Even Jackson could not save LA from ultimate disappointment in what could be his own swansong. Against Detroit, they were out-played, out-worked and out-thought. Bryant saved the Lakers from complete humiliation when he defiantly hit a long range score which sent Game 2 into an overtime period from which LA came out on top.

That was all they got, the Pistons emerging last week with the greatest upset in a generation to clinch the title with a 4-1 series win. The Lakers star said: “We didn't get the job done. They came in, they gave us good effort, they played their hearts out, they played as hard as they could possibly play.”

Malone was injured. Payton was past it. O’Neal was superb. Bryant had no excuses. “You know, when I dream, I dream about winning, always. It's never about losing. You know what, they played extremely well. They coached extremely well. They executed extremely well. They played hard. They played the right way and they are deserving of the Championship this year.”

In spite of the defeat, this remains a remarkable campaign for LA’s Showtime stars. Jackson reckons that to come within three wins of a crown was incredible given everything that has gone on around his club. “We overcame a lot of adversity during the course of the year. It was a Cinderella story actually that this team had.”

Will Bryant get his own fairytale ending? The millions in sponsorship deals have dried up as his backers have either fled or quietly airbrushed him out of their glossy brochures. Innocent or guilty, in jail or in freedom, he will never regain the flawless status he had before. Whenever he smiles, people will wonder if a deception lurks behind.

At just 25, he has already lived a life beyond his years. It may seem like Kobe has been a star forever but it was just that he became one while still a boy. So does he think that he’s changed so much over the past 12 months? He thinks for a moment and hits back. “I don't think so. I think we all change. Everyone goes through their own individual trials, whether they be good or bad. It's a constant growth, no matter how old you are.”

Not everyone has a life which changed so fast as the Lakers number eight. Not every clean-cut family man has their personal life shattered by one foolish mistake. Not every idol can live up to the myth and hype of his image. That’s Kobe Bryant – on trial for not being as perfect as the man we thought we knew.

This article originally appeared in Mail Sport


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