One play defines everything I've loved about Kobe Bryant. It isn't one of his thundering dunks or impossibly twisting layups, but a simple rebound and put-back. The Lakers were tied with the San Antonio Spurs near the end of Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. A missed shot bounced off the rim and it looked as if the Spurs would recover it. But then, out of nowhere came Kobe, soaring above the Spurs' two seven-footers. The ball was already past him, but he grabbed it with one hand, started coming back down and then lifted it into the basket. Game over.
That play was a perfect example of what's made Bryant so unstoppable: He combined almost otherworldly physical gifts with an unbendable will to win. And his grace on the court was matched by his charm off it. Kobe had a glow about him, a golden-boy aura.
It's gone now. The Bryant the fans have seen these last five months, since he was charged with raping a young woman in Colorado, seems like a different person. This Bryant got embroiled in a situation that was, at best, a horrific lapse of judgment or, at worst, a sexual assault. This Bryant shows up out of shape for preseason training camp. This Bryant skips practices and games, lashes out at Shaquille O'Neal and announces plans to opt out of his contract.
As the Lakers opened their season a little more than a week ago, there was a palpable sense of relief. Finally, we could start talking about basketball again instead of what everyone awkwardly calls Bryant's "legal troubles." But if the first few games are any indication, this season will be anything but comfortable.
All of this was unimaginable seven years ago when Bryant arrived in Los Angeles straight out of high school. It was as if the entire city had a hand in raising him, and we watched him transform from a teenager tossing up airballs against Utah to the man the Lakers turn to with the game on the line. We worshipped him because he played like a superhero. But we loved him because he seemed like our kid brother.
When Bryant was first arrested, we were devastated. When he admitted to adultery, callers on sports radio expressed outrage that he'd cheated on his wife -- perhaps sublimating their horror at the more disturbing scenario. And now, we're dismayed by his behavior toward his team.
I think the real disappointment runs much deeper. We are disappointed at Bryant for not being perfect. We're angry at him for stepping out of our fantasy world and into the ugly mess of real life. There are those who are quick to presume Bryant's guilt or innocence, but my feelings are more conflicted. I'm not naive enough to insist that he couldn't have done what he's accused of, and I'm disturbed by how the alleged victim is being vilified. But I want him to be innocent. I've continued to give him the benefit of the doubt, sometimes against my own better judgment.
This is what people who don't follow sports fail to understand: I want Bryant to be exonerated not only for his sake but also for mine. Because watching him play has been one of my greatest pleasures. The thought of not being able to watch him -- the thought of basketball without him -- is unfathomable.
Can Bryant make it back from this precipice? To a point -- if he's acquitted, and if it's clear he wasn't guilty. Judging from his performance through the opening week of the season, his game will be unaffected; perhaps he'll stop acting out. But I already know that I will never be able to watch Kobe play with the same uncomplicated pleasure again. Through this long, uncertain summer and unsettling fall, an innocence has been lost -- an innocence that sheltered him, and also us.
Novelist Nina Revoyr is the author of "Southland" (Akashic Books, 2003).