Dunking storm

The Guardian

San Francisco:

On August 6, 2003 Bryant took a private jet from Los Angeles where he stars for one of the most glamorous sports franchises in the United States, the LA Lakers basketball team, to the small but affluent Eagle County where he appeared before Judge Frederick Gannett, accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel concierge.

The 426 seconds, Bryant spent in court, dressed in an expensive linen suit, flanked by his expensive lawyers, he said just two words (‘No sir’) before flying back to his LA home, leaving the TV anchors, legal analysts and social commentators to dissect and speculate for hour upon end.

Bryant is a marketing icon in his homeland. Only Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and now LeBron James can outstrip his off-the-field earnings, said to have exceeded $15 million in 2002 alone. A month before his fateful visit to Colorado, he signed a $40m shoe contract with Nike.

The accusation of rape, which carries a maximum sentence in Colorado of life, is shocking enough but it is the dissonance between Bryant’s public persona and the violence of the alleged crime that has so stunned the country. It is also what has fuelled a desperate media campaign by the 24-year-old to shore up that persona in the period before the case comes to court.

The defence began early on July, when rumours surfaced that Bryant was being investigated for sexual assault on a woman during a visit to Colorado for knee surgery. Initially, he denied ever meeting his accuser. But when the rumours of a police investigation were confirmed, he changed his story. Flanked by his lawyers and his wife, Vanessa — whom he described as ‘the air that I breath’ — he tearfully admitted to adultery, but said he was innocent of any crime. A story leaked that he had bought Vanessa a $4m diamond ring as a peace offering. Finally, there was a press conference during which he said: “You know me guys. You know I wouldn’t do this.”

For many Americans watching at home, particularly those who deify their sporting heroes, this was all the convincing they needed. But the journalists in the room were less impressed. Many had covered Bryant’s basketball exploits for years and had come to think of him as obsessive and aloof. Instead of answering the desperate superstar in the affirmative, they responded with: But do we know the real Kobe Bryant?

Joe ‘Jelly Bean’ Bryant was a good basketball player, a journeyman who played in the NBA (the National Basketball Association) before finishing his career in Italy.

He was determined that his son would be a great player. “Joe was networked into the NBA and knew what it would take for Kobe to make the pros,” says Norm Eavenson, one of the country’s leading basketball scouts. “Every step was planned for him, and Kobe was the beneficiary of Joe’s knowledge and protection.”

Bryant Jnr took the game up seriously when he was 13, practising with one of his father’s old teams, the Philadelphia 76ers. Joe’s faith was rewarded within a couple of years Kobe was recognised as one of the best young players in the country. In the 1990s, it was normal for promising basketball players to play for a college team for four years before turning pro. With his family, the 17-year-old prodigy held a press conference to announce he was going straight to the NBA.

As many expected, he struggled against the bigger, stronger players in the professional game but those who predicted his talent would be irreparably crushed by the experience failed to take into account Bryant’s commitment and will-power. “I have not coached another player with a greater work ethic,” a former coach said. “To my knowledge there is no life experience that Kobe has had which he hasn’t then used to improve himself,’ said another. But what serves as commendable self-knowledge by one colleague, can be interpreted as self-obsession by others. He is not liked by those in a position to know him best — his teammates. Indeed, none of them has made the effort to publicly support him in his time of need. What is beyond debate, however, is that over the last five years, Bryant has turned himself into, arguably, the world’s best basketball player. In tandem with Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers’ other superstar, he has carried his team to three NBA championships, as well as becoming one of the most marketable celebrities in the US.

Publicly, Nike, along with his other sponsors, including Coca-Cola, have maintained they will stand by him until the case has reached its conclusion. Privately, they must share the concerns of the countless sports marketing analysts who believe that Bryant’s name will never recover from appearing in the same sentence as the word ‘rape’.

Bryant appeared again at a preliminary hearing on October 15 last year where Bryant lawyers presented what they call “compelling evidence” that Bryant is innocent. But prosecutors tell the judge that there is “uncontradicted “ evidence that Bryant did commit the rape. Citing illness, Kobe Bryant didn’t show up on February 2 this year for a hearing expected to play a key role in determining whether his statement to authorities will be admitted at his sexual assault trial.

Bryant, 25, faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted of felony sexual assault. He has said he had consensual sex with the 19-year-old woman.