His Heart on His Sleeve

Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant peeled back his right shirt sleeve Monday afternoon and took reporters on a tour of the shoulder-to-elbow tattoo he’d sat for.

A crown -- “My queen,” he said -- hovered over the name of his wife, Vanessa, then an angel’s wings, or a butterfly’s -- “Her name actually means ‘butterfly,’ ” he said -- fanned across his biceps. The work -- “One of a kind,” he said -- included a reference to Psalm 27, his favorite Bible passage. On the inside of his right wrist, he’d added the name of daughter Natalia.

“I got this because she’s my angel, man,” Bryant said. “She’s a blessing to me, her and Natalia both.”

In a league that could fund the entire industry by itself, the tattoo is Bryant’s first. It came after a summer that saw Bryant accused of rape and charged with felony sexual assault, a preliminary hearing for which is scheduled for Thursday in Eagle, Colo. He has admitted to adultery.

He is perhaps 15 pounds lighter than he was in June, his muscles now longer and leaner. Some of the weight loss was by design, he said, some not. “I’ve been under a lot of stress recently, so I didn’t train that much,” he explained. “So, I lost weight that way.”


Practices end with his right knee, repaired by surgery the day after the alleged assault, wrapped in ice.

And they end with dozens of reporters circling him, shoving each other for a glimpse of the artwork that honors the wife he says he cheated on. On his third day back among his Laker teammates, he appeared physically weaker and emotionally more fragile than ever. Exhibition games start tonight, the regular season in three weeks, and Bryant is not ready. He won’t play either exhibition game here, is expected to leave the team to attend the preliminary hearing, and the organization is hoping he’ll play in a couple of preseason games before the Laker opener at the end of the month.

It’s not just the basketball that is -- or will be -- the heavy lift. After spending his lifetime becoming exactly what he wanted to be, Bryant said Monday that he regretted a large part of it.

“Going through something like this humbles you, and you understand that the ultimate purpose here is to do God’s work,” he said. "... It’s not about the money, it’s not about the fame and all that other stuff. It’s about going out there and doing what I do best and having a good time doing it. To be honest with you, I’d much rather play basketball and not be famous. I’d much rather do something else that I love doing and getting paid well to do it, and being able to be married to my wife and raise our children without anybody bothering us when we go out in public, or everybody scrutinizing every little detail, everybody making up rumors about our lives. I’d take that.”

He could, of course. He could take the season off to tend to his family and his court case, a possibility he said he considered until a month ago. He could retire, even at 25.

“Do I look like a quitter?” he asked. “No. No. I try not to worry about things I can’t control. I have faith and I’m going to fight.”

Fame, and his contributions to it, made his No. 8 the top-selling jersey in the NBA. Then it put his mug shot on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his story in the supermarket tabloids and his life somewhere beyond his fingertips. He said this weekend he was “terrified” by what the coverage, the fame, his actions, might bring upon his family, and Monday he was driven to defend himself against a magazine report that said his displeasure with his marriage might have put his wife in the hospital.

“It makes me angry,” he said, denying the report. Bryant, who apparently has been advised to avoid public conversations about the case or the events leading to it, was asked for details.

“Let’s see, today? What was today? Um, someone mentioned that I wanted to divorce my wife four months ago ... " he said. "... and, because I wanted to divorce her she went into shock.”

”... People, I think, just pull it out of nowhere just to make stuff up and give people something to talk about. And it’s a shame.”

So, Bryant tries not to look. He tries to rehabilitate his knee and his body, perhaps in the belief that his mind and his life will follow. There is speculation his lawyers could waive Thursday’s hearing to get right to a trial. In the meantime, fame seeks him as doggedly as he once sought it.

He would not reveal his schedule, whether he would leave the team before Wednesday night’s game or how long he might be away.

“I’m here now,” he said. “I’m just kind of going a day at a time with this thing and, you know, see where it takes me.”


Notes: The Lakers play the Golden State Warriors tonight and Wednesday night at the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii. In drills, Derek Fisher has received most of the playing time in Bryant’s place.... Gary Payton collided with a teammate during Monday’s practice and afterward held an ice bag to his left shoulder.... Shaquille O’Neal appeared to run with ease Monday, suggesting he is healing from his bruised left heel.