Anyone with a shred of sense cringes each time Kobe Bryant shows up for another televised awards show. One week, he's designer classy at the ESPYs, another he's bling-bling street casual for the Teen Choice Awards. Now there's an event whose very name should have been enough to scare off a man accused of sexual assault against a 19-year-old. But the man on the other end of the line—a man in the basketball business who's known Kobe and his family since the NBA star was 17—is laughing as he says, "He feels he's bulletproof. He throws caution to the wind because he thinks he's Superman. When you think about it, why wouldn't he? He's never had reason to believe otherwise."
The critique gets to the danger inherent in any examination of the short, suddenly strange life of the 25-year-old Laker. The danger comes in working backward, using the night of June 30 as a trampoline for revisionist leaps. Character traits that defined greatness three months ago are now seen as omens. Each one—his intensity, his single-mindedness, his practiced detachment—is molded to fit any number of theories and scenarios.
Now all of it is cast in a different light: the stories of Kobe running high school teammates into walls when they dared challenge his supremacy in ballhandling drills; his burning ambition, typified by a me-first attitude toward teammates; his break from his family, which dominoed into his reliance on a rapidly constricting circle of trusted confidantes. Everything's a clue. Or is nothing a clue? Can you draw a line to connect so many disparate events in a life to a few decisions made over the course of an hour late one June night?
Ultimately, the relentless and often tawdry quest to understand what took place over that hour at The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., is just a back channel into the big question: who is Kobe Bryant? It's indicative of Bryant's elusiveness that, seven seasons into an NBA career of the highest profile, we're still asking the question.
His public identity was foretold long before he had a chance to own it. In the NBA's media-induced monarchal progression, Kobe was immediately in line for the throne being vacated by Michael Jordan. On the court, he fulfilled that promise with willfulness and grace. His spats with Shaq were excused as youthful exuberance. He won three rings. He displayed the practiced public banality necessary to retain fans and procure endorsements. He was very close to bulletproof.
Off the court, Bryant occasionally broke from his closely guarded privacy to engage in clumsy attempts to claim an identity of his own. He's the squeaky-clean son of relative privilege who writes poetry on the road. No, he's the wannabe rapper who fights with teammates (Samaki Walker) and opponents (Reggie Miller) but still finds time to pray over the phone with friends back in Philly. Wait, he's the image-conscious street baller who shows up to run in a Rucker Park summer league game, but only after making sure to alert the media beforehand. The attempts seem random, almost desperate, coming off as the work of the kid who shows up in the middle of the school year. Nobody knows what to make of him as he goes from group to group, trying to belong.
Kobe's public actions since June30 have been stubbornly self-determined, and sometimes against the advice of attorneys. And they've carried the same scent of aimless desperation.
He and his wife, Vanessa, rarely seen together during nontumultuous times, have recently been front-and-center and side-by-side three times—at the ESPYs, at a July 18 press conference and at the Teen Choice Awards. During his Teen Choice acceptance speech, he hit the stage in a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, then invoked God and Martin Luther King. Holding a surfboard and wearing gaudy big-ticket jewelry, his paraphrasing of King ("An injustice anywhere … ") got him censored by Fox, of all networks.
Most überathletes—Bryant, Jordan, Bonds, for example—share unflattering traits that are accepted as nearly chromosomal. For instance, these icons are notoriously self-obsessed and driven. But Jordan, for all his gambling and philandering, has never publicly strayed from his buttoned-down corporate image in an attempt to appeal to a different demographic. And Bonds, for all his Olympian surliness, has never pretended
to enjoy the spotlight or hid his disdain for the process that put him in it.
Bryant, however, works his image from all angles. During last season's playoffs, he wore a different retro jersey to each postgame press conference, saying it was to honor black stars of the past—like Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson. But the man who has known him since high school says, "What a crock. Everyone in the league saw right through that. When Iverson does it, it's cool. When Kobe did it, it was so contrived it was almost sad."
"It hasn't been easy for Kobe," says Gregg Downer, Bryant's coach at Lower Merion (Pa.) High School. "I think the NBA has to answer for some of that. They were the ones who jammed him into the Jordan role when he was 18. "
But it was the role of permanent outsider that Kobe was groomed for long before he embraced it. His father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, lasted eight NBA seasons before playing professionally in Italy. So Kobe lived in Italy for eight years, returning to the Philadelphia area with his family for the eighth grade. He once told the Los Angeles Times, "It was kind of strange because, being away, I didn't know a lot of the slang that kids used. Kids would come up to me and say whatever, and I'd just nod." And when Bryant declared for the draft at 17, then became the youngest player in NBA history, he did so at a time when the league—and its veterans—had yet to embrace teenage prodigies.
Eight years later, he is an image-conscious man without a defined image. Several sources say many factors—the strains of marriage, a continuing rift with his parents, even the heralded and threatening arrival of LeBron James—converged to create a situation in which Bryant's very private life became the worst kind of public. "You're talking about a man whose margin of error is none," Downer says. "Nobody has any idea what it's like to walk in Kobe Bryant's shoes. He made a mistake—I trust that's all he did—and now he's fair game." In other words, he's still nodding at the world's slang without understanding the words.
Bryant's presence in Colorado was the perfect example of his insistence on playing by his own rules. He was there for minor knee surgery, but the Lakers had not been informed. He was, as always, on his own program, removed from authority, answering to no one. Even the three bodyguards who were with him at the resort were apparently unaware that their boss had chosen to invite to his room the concierge who then claimed Bryant raped her. In his worst hour, Bryant was true to his role as serial outsider.
Bryant's detractors point to the lack of support from other players as evidence of Kobe's distance from them. O'Neal has been silent and, after a tidy pro forma statement, so has the Lakers front office. Other public support has been tepid. Tracy McGrady, while expressing his best wishes, slipped in an admonishment of sorts when he said, "If you're married, stick with your wife."
Many people associated with Bryant refused to be interviewed for this story. One of Bryant's old Philly friends, CBAer John Linehan, prefaced his remarks by saying, "If this is going to be something bad about Kobe, I don't want anything to do with it." But those who chose to talk, whether anonymously or not, repeated the same refrain: Bryant has almost systematically cut off contact with any of the older advisers he previously
approached for counsel.
For one, Bryant has not spoken to his former agent, Arn Tellem, for more than a year. Multiple sources confirm friction between the two began when the agent strongly advised Kobe to get a prenup before his 2001 marriage to Vanessa Laine, who was an 18-year-old high school senior when they were engaged. When Bryant ignored Tellem's advice, the relationship began to deteriorate.
Then in March 2002, Bryant and Reggie Miller—another Tellem client—got into a nasty on-court altercation that got nastier two days later when Miller issued a cryptic statement that Bryant "has other issues to deal with." Enraged, Bryant tried hard to get Tellem to drop the Pacers star. Tellem refused, choosing to remain loyal to his first major client, and Bryant cut Tellem loose. He is now represented by Rob Pelinka, a young agent in the same Southern California-based SFX corporation. Both Pelinka and Tellem declined to comment.
"He's essentially cut ties with anyone who was in the mentor role," says a source close to the Lakers. "We all need the wisdom of an older person to steer us. He doesn't have that, and it shows in his decisions. With a little advice from his elders, a lot of the mistakes he made before and after this incident could have been avoided."
Earlier in Bryant's career, veteran teammates such as Byron Scott and Ron Harper tried to convince him of the importance of hanging out with teammates. But he almost always remained aloof—some say haughty—preferring to sit in the back of the bus connected to headphones or a cell phone. During the playoff series with the Timberwolves last season, Bryant was the only Laker to skip a dinner at the Minnesota home of teammate Devean George's mother. His own words best describe his attitude toward other Lakers: "I trust my teammates," he told The Magazine in January 2001. "I just trust myself more."
Bryant's isolationist nature was never more evident than on his wedding day, April 18, 2001. The ceremony, held at St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point, Calif., was an exercise in detachment. Roughly a dozen people were in attendance; though it was held during the NBA season, none of them was a teammate.
Since that day, Kobe has seemed determined to whittle his world down to Vanessa and her family, baby daughter Natalia Diamante and paid employees. For a world-renowned athlete, the problem is obvious: bodyguards and trainers are hired for positive reinforcement, not for the kind of advice young married couples and new parents need. In the same way, in-laws whose financial future hinges on the man's career are also compromised. When the only people around you are dependent on you, unvarnished advice is in short supply. And so, two young people—some would say kids—are left to make their way through a world teeming with questionable values and dubious motives.
"He hasn't had a personal friend since he came into the league," says our basketball source. "He's unapproachable, and he got rid of anyone who said no or disagreed with him." Reebok executive Tom Shine, who had extensive dealings with Bryant before Kobe signed a $40-45 million deal with Nike, defends him. "Kobe gets blamed for having a tight circle of people, but at the same time other guys are being criticized for having a big posse of hangers-on. Which is it? Kobe handles his own business. He's in charge of his life. If we scheduled a meeting with him at 4 p.m., he was there at 4 p.m. Some guys don't show up for two days. It proves one thing: the life these guys lead looks a lot better from the outside."
The list of those ostracized by Bryant begins with his parents, Joe and Pam, who had a falling-out with their son over his decision to take such a young bride, and at such a young age. (Opponents have long used Vanessa's youth as fodder for trash-talk.) The Los Angeles Times has also reported that Kobe has confirmed his father's discomfort with Vanessa's not being African-American. Neither of his parents attended the wedding; father and son didn't speak for roughly two years. (Word is their publicized reconciliation, which took place in April, was overstated for public consumption.) Friction over the marriage caused Kobe's tight circle to cinch like a noose. When Kobe first joined the NBA, Joe and Pam lived in his Pacific Palisades home, then moved to a home in the same neighborhood.
His sister Shaya worked in Tellem's office. Before the marriage, sources say, Kobe abruptly sold the house, in effect forcing his parents and his sister back to Philadelphia.
Bryant explained the rift with his parents by referencing the Bible, specifically Genesis 2:24: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Vanessa's family, however, became a bigger part of his life. Bryant helped his wife's parents in the wake of their 2000 bankruptcy. Court documents indicate Kobe and Vanessa gave the Laines roughly $500,000 to settle dental and credit card bills and to pay off a mortgage on a Garden Grove, Calif., home they owned. The Laines have since divorced.
In the days after he turned himself over to Colorado authorities, Bryant famously bought Vanessa a $4 million, eight-carat diamond ring. "He's trying to hold onto his wife," says the man familiar with the Bryant family. "If he loses her, the game's over. He needs her, because he's removed everyone else. There's no one left."
Bryant is fighting a many-fronted battle unlike any he has fought before. But make no mistake: he's always savored competition. Teammates in high school who dared challenge his supremacy in drills or sprints sometimes found themselves slammed against the wall or chased down from behind like prey. He treated competition the way despots treat rebellion: as something to be squashed before it has a chance to grow.
"He had a single-minded devotion that I'd never seen before," says Downer, his high school coach. "His dedication—coming to the gym at 6 a.m. during a snowstorm, lifting weights four times a week—was astounding for a person his age. When your best player is a guy who's never lost a sprint in four years, it has a good impact on your team."
Such devotion, it seems, leaves room for little else. Even Downer, one of Bryant's staunchest defenders, says, "I'm not going to comment on what that part of his personality does to him socially."
John Linehan's voice rises as he says, "You just watch Kobe this year. He always comes through in adversity, and I know he's going to be awesome when he gets back on the court. He's all alone right now, shooting jumpers and thinking about it. He'll use it as motivation. That's the type of person he is."
There's no guarantee Bryant's return to the Lakers this fall will be a lasting one. The crime he's been accused of carries a sentence of four years to life. The circus will reconvene in Eagle County for the preliminary hearing on Oct. 9. A trial is likely to follow sometime in 2004.
Even Kobe's critic, the unnamed basketball man, says, "I don't want to see him go to prison. But he shouldn't get off because everyone thinks he's a nice guy; he should get off if he didn't do it. Even if he's exonerated, though, it won't be the same for him. His altar boy days are over."
To be sure, no one will get out of this unscarred—not Bryant, not his accuser, not the media, not the 13-year-old girls hanging out on the lawn of the Eagle County Justice Center with microphones in their faces and "Kobe Is Innocent" felt-tipped onto their arms. The enterprise has sullied everything it touches.
Lose the hysterics and histrionics, and what's left is a famous man, alone. Alone with his talent. Alone with his drive, alone in the back of the bus, alone with the ball. And, on the last night in June, alone with his judgment and a 19-year-old hotel worker in an isolated mountain resort.
What really happened? Two people know. In the meantime, the central question hangs in the air. Too many people with too many agendas will continue to tell you who Kobe Bryant really is. But it remains a question nobody—maybe not even the man himself—seems capable of answering.