As we celebrate Kobe Bryant’s career, we should remember too its darkest chapter
As expected, one of the world’s most talented athletes has finally announced his retirement. In April, Kobe Bryant, No. 24, hangs up his Lakers jersey for good.
I won’t be sad to see him go. And not just because the sun is setting on his immense physical gifts. I haven’t really enjoyed watching him for years. And I know I am not the only woman who feels that way.
Perhaps more than any other worshiped, coddled and overpaid athlete (or entertainer) who has stepped over a line, Bryant has forced a lot of us to think about what we are able to forgive, or ignore.
I, for one, could never look at him the same way after he was charged with rape in 2003.
Which is unfortunate, because the Lakers are such an important part of Los Angeles culture.
I grew up in this town, split for college, and moved back during the flashy 1980s, in the era of Magic and Kareem and Showtime. I loved watching Pat Riley — his Armani-clad silhouette, his slicked-back hair. I loved his brash move to trademark the word “three-peat.”
I still loved the Lakers when Phil Jackson came along, with a spiritual approach and an actual three-peat of championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
And then, squeaky-clean Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy and Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, was accused of raping a 19-year-old Colorado hotel clerk.
The most transgressive thing we knew about Bryant, at age 24, was that he had married a 19-year-old against the wishes of his family two years earlier, and had unseemly spats with his teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
But people close to him must have seen something darker. A year after Bryant was charged, Jackson addressed the allegations in his 2004 memoir, “The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul.”
“Was I surprised?” he wrote. “Yes, but not entirely. Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger, which he’s displayed toward me and his teammates.” Not exactly an unalloyed statement of support.
In a 2014 New Yorker profile of Bryant, writer Ben McGrath noted that Bryant admired the “infamous victory rant” of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman after a clash with a San Francisco 49ers player. Many saw Sherman’s outburst as unsportsmanlike.
But Bryant liked what he saw. Sherman, he told McGrath, had demonstrated “the ugliness of greatness.”
That’s pretty much how I think about what must have happened in that Colorado hotel room in 2003. An entitled athlete does an ugly thing because he is great, and because he is used to getting his way.
According to police records, Bryant had asked the clerk to show him around the hotel. Hoping for an autograph, the college student brought a piece of paper and a pen, which later ended up as evidence in the criminal case.
What began as consensual kissing in his room — within about 15 minutes of their having met — turned into an alleged sexual assault, when the 6-foot-6 athlete turned the young woman around, bent her over a chair and penetrated her, according to court and police records.
In an awkward news conference with his wife, Vanessa, at his side, he insisted everything about the encounter was consensual.
“I didn’t force her to do anything against her will,” he said, his voice husky with emotion. “I sit here in front of you guys furious with myself … for making the mistake of adultery. I love my wife with all my heart.”
He denied committing sexual assault but acknowledged to Eagle County sheriff’s detectives that he had held the woman by the neck and said he had done that before, during an encounter with another woman.
Just days before a trial that could have put Bryant away for a long time had he been found guilty, the accuser said she would not testify. She had filed a civil suit, later settled confidentially. Prosecutors then dropped the charge. Bryant fans rejoiced. Didn’t that prove the rape allegation was unfounded after all?
Not to me.
It proved that a young woman should never expect the criminal justice system to work for her if her alleged assailant is a rich, famous and beloved American celebrity.
The odds were against her from the start.
Bryant’s attorneys convinced the judge that her sexual and mental health histories were relevant. They claimed she had had sex with a second man in the hours after Bryant allegedly assaulted her. Her attorneys denied it.
Despite Colorado’s strong rape shield law, her full name was mistakenly published three times on the Eagle County website.
A court reporter accidentally emailed transcripts of a closed hearing about her sexual activity to seven news organizations, which eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for its release. At the urging of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Colorado District Judge Terry Ruckriegle reluctantly allowed publication of the redacted transcript.
In one hearing, Bryant’s attorney — violating the shield law — repeatedly stated the accuser’s name. Tom Leykis, the woman-hating talk radio troll, did the same on his show.
What was the fallout for her? The accuser received death threats.
In separate incidents, three men — from Iowa, Long Beach and El Segundo — went to prison. The El Segundo man, Swiss national Patrick Graber, had offered to Bryant’s bodyguards to kill her for $1 million.
What happened to Bryant? Not much. He temporarily lost some sponsors. He had to buy his wife a multimillion-dollar ring. Two weeks after he was charged with rape, he was named favorite male athlete at the 2003 Teen Choice Awards.
The following year, as part of the agreement to drop the criminal charge, Bryant issued an apology to his accuser.
“I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year,” he wrote. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way. … I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
As L.A. gears up for a major celebration of the life and times of Kobe Bryant, I just thought it was important to tell the woman whose life was changed by the ugliness of his greatness: I remember you. I believed you then. I believe you now.
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