Distraction factor can't be dismissed

The scenes were surreal Friday, but the plight is all too real for Kobe Bryant.

Here are some of the immediate questions and answers, from a basketball perspective, spawned by the sight of Bryant tearfully proclaiming his innocence after being charged with the felony sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman.

How does the charge affect Bryant's image?

Even if Bryant is acquitted, he must know that his public persona has been changed forever, largely because it is Bryant who has openly held himself to such a high, family-oriented standard. The mere admission of adultery has, at the very least, blemished a spotless record of conduct that made him the ideal citizen for any professional sports league, not just the NBA. Winning his innocence in court can't erase the blemish.

That said, Bryant is immensely popular all over the world and the public tends to be rather forgiving of NBA stars. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan remained worldwide icons after their infidelities became known, and New Jersey's Jason Kidd is seen today as a savior of a franchise just two years removed from a domestic-assault arrest stemming from an incident with wife Joumana. Bryant, remember, is innocent until proven guilty, and his popularity isn't going anywhere if his innocence is reaffirmed by the legal system.

"Since this thing came out, a lot of people have questioned whether it's true or not because he's established his reputation," Seattle guard Ray Allen told ESPNEWS. "He's shown people that he's a good person. … They're just allegations, and we won't go forward and say he's a monster because of something that somebody else said."

Again, that is contingent on Bryant retaining his innocence. If he can't, he obviously loses much more than his pristine image.

What is the impact on the NBA's image?

Sadly, off-court transgressions for NBA players are seemingly commonplace. Just in the past few weeks, there have been numerous negative stories for the league to stomach: Portland's Damon Stoudamire getting arrested for another marijuana possession; Orlando's Darrell Armstrong being accused of assault against a police officer; Washington's Jerry Stackhouse facing allegations of pushing a female real-estate agent; and Sacramento's Chris Webber pleading guilty to a contempt charge in a federal perjury trial.

It was also announced recently that Atlanta's Glenn Robinson will be suspended for the first three games of next season after a May conviction on domestic assault charges from last summer.

But this is different. This case involves Bryant, arguably the NBA's most wholesome superstar. That's why, as one official noted, the mood in the league office has been dark for two weeks, ever since the allegations against Bryant surfaced. Friday's announcement that Bryant would be charged with felony sexual assault was merely the confirmation of what had been feared for days.

Yet you can expect the league to say very little about Bryant's plight until a verdict is reached. That is the stance taken by NBA commissioner David Stern in the Webber case, which ended Monday when Webber entered his guilty plea to a lesser charge to avoid prison time. Stern isn't expected to say anything substantive about Webber until mid-September, when the crime is deemed a felony or a misdemeanor. That's when Stern will likely rule on the severity of Webber's punishment from the league, suspension or fine.

Any NBA player who pleads guilty to a crime, even a misdemeanor, is subject to league suspension. The league prefers the stance of silence until court proceedings are completed, which played out well last summer when Philadelphia's Allen Iverson was charged with four felonies involving a weapon and assault. All charges were later dropped.

Bryant's case is bound to be seen by some as a last-straw indictment of all NBA players. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, speaking generally about the NBA and not about Bryant specifically, has been outspoken against critics of the league's supposed image problems, arguing that the intense media coverage the sport gets is what makes the off-court problems seem like an epidemic.

"There isn't a major corporation in America that wouldn't love to have the personnel problems of any professional sport," Cuban said. "In sports, when a guy screws up, he apologizes publicly and, more often than not, he is willing to get help. … I'm not trying to downplay the troubles individuals have, but the NBA has great support systems to proactively prevent problems. Out of a population of more than 450 men between the ages of 18 and 40 -- all making far, far more money than their peers -- about 1 percent have some type of legal issue. I would take that in any of my businesses any day."

What are the Lakers' contingency plans in case they lose Bryant for part of the upcoming season?

Until Friday, the Lakers didn't even contemplate contingency plans. They were focused on the free-agent pursuits of Gary Payton and Karl Malone and freely admit that they wouldn't know how to replace Bryant even if they wanted to. Even on a roster headlined by Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant is L.A.'s franchise player in fourth quarters.

Now, though, the Lakers are forced to consider the possibility that a trial could occur during the season, threatening some of Bryant's availability. That could make signing another shooting guard more of a priority, as opposed to trying to bring back veteran forward Robert Horry, but in either case the obstacle is money.

The Lakers don't have anything left to offer outside free agents except the $1 million veteran minimum, which gives them no shot at the shooting guard they want regardless of Bryant's status: Eric Piatkowski. The Lakers can pay Horry anything they wish, but even if the sides can agree on financial terms, that doesn't make L.A. any deeper in the backcourt.

How big a distraction will this be for the Lakers?

Let's face it: That's a much bigger concern for L.A. than finding another shooting guard. If Bryant indeed has to miss games, it's a safe bet that the Lakers will do more than get by with O'Neal, Payton and Malone. By contrast, there's no telling how the Lakers -- Bryant specifically -- will react to the distraction factor because this is a one-of-a-kind distraction, even for a team that is accustomed to controversy and drama.

It was going to be a season of record-setting scrutiny anyway, with the Lakers doubling their quota of future Hall of Famers from two to four. But Bryant's uncertain future, and how he copes with it, suddenly overshadows everything in the Lakers' stratosphere, just one day after the giddy introduction of Payton and Malone to the L.A. media seemed to signal the first step back to glory.

Did Bryant meet his new teammates before Friday's charge?

It's true that O'Neal and Magic Johnson were heavily involved in the recruitment of Payton and Malone, and that Bryant was not, but the Lakers insist that was by design. General manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday, at the Payton/Malone news conference, that he intentionally sought to limit such communication.

"I'm in constant contact with Kobe's representatives -- I talk to them every day," Kupchak said. "It was our feeling that the best thing to do is let them tend to the biggest issues they have to deal with right now. And that was conveyed to both Karl and Gary. We felt it was best to respect this period in Kobe's life without a business intrusion."

How does this charge affect Bryant's status with Team USA?

Because of recent shoulder and knee surgeries, Bryant was going to miss this summer's Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico regardless. It's believed that no decision on his status with the actual 2004 Olympic team will be made until it has to be made, after a trial.

Yet the situation would have been different had Bryant been hit with these charges before being selected. The legal cloud that hung over Webber all season excluded him from consideration for the national team by USA Basketball's selection committee. That's even after Webber said publicly that he wanted to play for his country and in spite of a big-man shortage with O'Neal and Kevin Garnett declining invitations.

What is Bryant's mental state?

Bryant's drive, maturity, and competitive nature have been evident from the day he joined the Lakers as a skinny teenager in the summer of 1996. Del Harris, his first coach, was recently asked to compare LeBron James to a young Bryant, and promptly said that James -- to match Bryant's development -- will have to prove over time "whether he has the steely sharp mind that Kobe and Michael Jordan possess."

Of course, Bryant is facing circumstances now that no one could be prepared for. Webber called the basketball court his "sanctuary" last season, but Bryant is a bigger name … playing for the league's glamour franchise … and facing a more severe charge.

"The times that I have been charged, it's nerve-wracking," Charles Barkley said Friday in a SportsCenter interview. "I had to stand before a jury I think five or six times, and that's the only time I've ever been nervous in my life.

"… I'm a big SportsCenter fan, but when you turn on the TV every single day and people are talking about you, it's tough."

What happens to Bryant's place in basketball history if he is convicted?

Almost all of the above is based on the premise that Bryant will be acquitted. A conviction would represent such an unfathomable fall from grace that almost no one in NBA circles, at this point, can bring themselves to contemplate it.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.