Bryant Told Police of O'Neal Payouts

Special to The Times

Hours after his sexual encounter with a hotel employee in Colorado, Kobe Bryant told investigators that Shaquille O'Neal, his Laker teammate at the time, had paid up to $1 million to women to keep them quiet about "situations like this," according to a police report.

An Eagle County, Colo., detective wrote in a report that Bryant made the comment near the end of a lengthy interrogation on July 2, 2003, about allegations that Bryant had raped the woman, then 19, in his resort hotel room.

O'Neal was informed of the comment last September, about two weeks before Laker training camp opened in Hawaii, when prosecution investigators made an unsuccessful attempt to question him. His agent, Perry Rogers, said Tuesday that the allegation in Bryant's statement was untrue and "undeserving of a response."

Much of Bryant's 75-minute interview was tape-recorded, but Det. Doug Winters wrote that the reference to O'Neal came after his partner, Det. Dan Loya, had turned off the recorder.

The incident report, a portion of which was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, is part of the sealed file in the criminal case that was brought against Bryant last year and dropped this month. A Colorado judge has a motion before him to unseal documents from the case.

"Bryant made a comment to us about what another teammate does in situations like these," Winters wrote. "Bryant stated he should have done what Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) does. Bryant stated that Shaq would pay his women not to say anything. He stated Shaq has paid up to a million dollars already for situations like this. He stated he, Bryant, treats a woman with respect, therefore they shouldn't say anything."

In a closed court proceeding before the felony charge was dropped, Bryant's attorneys fought successfully to have the reference to O'Neal declared inadmissible at trial, according to a prosecution source.

It is unclear precisely what Bryant meant by the remarks attributed to him. There have been no published reports of O'Neal ever being accused of any sex crime.

He was charged with misdemeanor battery in Orange County, Fla., in 1998 after a 23-year-old Walt Disney World employee claimed he grabbed her neck, but the case was dismissed in 2000. Rogers said Tuesday that he did not know whether O'Neal confronted Bryant about the comments before or during the 2003-04 season. Two members of last season's Laker team, reached by telephone, said they were unaware of Bryant's purported comments and that there had been no obvious change in a relationship that was strained for years.

"It didn't have any impact on the relationship," Rogers said, "because Shaquille had a very professional approach to his career there and because he has had an understanding of Kobe, Kobe's interests and Kobe's priorities. Kobe has historically been shown to be interested in one person and one person alone."

Bryant's agent and attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.

The reference was first reported by Sports Illustrated, which did not name O'Neal.

The remark attributed to Bryant figured in an effort last year by investigators to interview O'Neal in connection with the criminal case against his longtime teammate -- an effort that ended in failure.

According to sources involved in the investigation, the authorities wanted to ask O'Neal about a party he held at his Orlando, Fla., mansion on Thanksgiving 2002, when a 22-year-old waitress working at the gathering claimed Bryant had groped her. They also wanted any information O'Neal could offer about Bryant's behavior on road trips.

Under Colorado law, prosecutors can introduce evidence of conduct that shows a similar pattern of behavior. Prosecutors wanted the waitress to cooperate as a potential witness against Bryant, the sources said.

After initially calling prosecutors to tell her story, she declined to meet with prosecution investigator Ray Birch when he arrived in Orlando, according to relatives of the woman and sources involved in the investigation.

But prosecutors viewed her account of the night at O'Neal's house as too important to drop, so they dispatched Birch to Los Angeles in an attempt to interview the center.

He was joined by an investigator with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. On Sept. 22, 2003, they called Rogers, who referred them to O'Neal's attorney, David Chesnoff. At first, Birch said in an interview, Chesnoff was reluctant to produce O'Neal.

In a phone conversation on Sept. 24, they read to Chesnoff the statement that Bryant had allegedly made about O'Neal.

"That's when we were sure we would get that interview," Birch said. "We showed him our hand, and he complimented us on our professionalism."

Investigators thought they had an agreement to meet O'Neal at 10 a.m. on Sept. 26 in the Los Angeles area, but the meeting never materialized. That night they finally reached Chesnoff, who told them it was not in O'Neal's best interest to participate in the investigation, Birch said.

Chesnoff said Tuesday that when he told O'Neal about the remarks attributed to Bryant, he did not seem agitated. "I was so impressed with his maturity and the intelligence with which he dealt with it," he said.

The effort to interview O'Neal came as the Lakers were beginning training camp for the 2003-04 NBA season, one in which they were championship favorites because of the acquisition of highly regarded veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

However, the season was filled with controversy and ended in disappointment, with the Lakers losing in the finals to the Detroit Pistons. O'Neal requested a trade and was sent to the Miami Heat, and Coach Phil Jackson departed. Bryant remained a Laker, signing a seven-year, $136-million contract in July despite the uncertainty of the criminal case.

Friction between Bryant and O'Neal was a constant in their eight Laker seasons. Even before they played a regular-season game together, O'Neal began calling Bryant "Showboat" and "Hollywood."

O'Neal slapped Bryant during a pickup game in January 1999, and later that season the 7-foot-1 center would point across the locker room and tell reporters that Bryant was the team's problem.

For his part, Bryant seemed perplexed at O'Neal's attitude toward him. "It can't be a personality thing, because I really don't know the guy that much," Bryant said at the time. "I don't really hang around him that much."

The two superstars set their egos aside long enough to lead the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships, beginning in 2000. O'Neal even acknowledged Bryant's contribution, saying, "I think he's the best player in the league. By far." Bryant said he was shocked by the comments.

The sniping and backbiting began anew last fall, however. Bryant was one day late to training camp, but O'Neal dismissed his absence, saying, "The full team is here." A few weeks later, O'Neal suggested that Bryant become more of a passer than a scorer until he fully recovered from knee and shoulder surgeries.

Bryant was incensed, saying, "I definitely don't need advice on how to play my game."

Despite an edict by team officials that both players cease the sniping, Bryant went on a rant about O'Neal in an interview with ESPN and was fined $2,500.

All season, O'Neal knew of the comments that detectives claimed Bryant had said about him.

Said Rogers, O'Neal's agent: "It wasn't difficult to figure out that in this situation Kobe was a desperate man in a desperate situation and made desperate statements."

Benedict is a freelance writer; Brown and Henson are Times staff writers.

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