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Lakers

Much like her husband Kobe, Vanessa Bryant has been a contradictory, at times polarizing public figure

At the MTV Movie Awards

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at the MTV Movie Awards at Sony Pictures Studios on June 5, 2004.

(Frank Micelotta / Getty Images)

Television news crews descended upon Marina High School in Huntington Beach that spring morning. A helicopter flew overhead.

The previous day, a young Kobe Bryant had announced his engagement to a woman he declined to identify. Word quickly leaked it was an 18-year-old senior at the school.

Everyone wanted a glimpse of the mysterious fiancee whom the Lakers icon referred to as “my star.”

Vanessa Laine had been swept into the spotlight overnight. She would soon marry Bryant and become something more than just a side note to his storied basketball career.

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After all these years, it is probably inevitable that — much like her famous mate — Vanessa strikes a contradictory figure in the public eye, by turns glamorous and cartoonish, admired and disdained.

Her marriage has endured a sexual assault charge against her husband and divorce proceedings that were subsequently dropped. In darker times, she has been parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and dubbed “the new Yoko.”

Through it all, the woman who had “ICE QN” license plates on her Mercedes has tried to keep the world at arm’s length, rarely granting interviews. But her life has been anything but private.

It was the summer of 1999 when Vanessa, an attractive but otherwise outwardly unassuming teenager from Orange County, was recruited to appear in videos for Snoop Dogg’s hip-hop trio Tha Eastsidaz and others. Her mother accompanied her to shoots.

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Barely in his 20s, Bryant was also moving in music industry circles, trying to launch a side career that would never get far. He met Vanessa and, according to her friends, began sending roses to Marina High and picking her up after school.

“She’d bring pictures of Kobe to school and we’d be like ‘Omygod,’” classmate Monica Squadrilli told The Times in 2005. “Even then, a lot of people didn’t believe her.”

The couple announced their engagement at her 18th birthday party and were married at a Catholic church in Dana Point in April 2001. Bryant’s parents did not attend.

His father, former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, would later acknowledge they disapproved of their son’s new wife. Kobe said it was partly because she was a Latina.

Joe denied any racial animosity but said at the time: “Once he decided to get married, it’s his life now.”

In those early years, Vanessa adeptly played the role of NBA wife, attending games and accompanying Bryant to social occasions. She gave birth to a daughter, Natalia Diamante, in January 2003.

It took a while for negative headlines to pop up. There were occasional stories about her remaining aloof from other Lakers’ wives or behaving rudely with store clerks. The media criticized her for wearing a T-shirt that read “Fashionable [expletive]” to a game.

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But that was merely a taste of things to come.

Six months after Natalia’s birth, Bryant was charged with sexual assault stemming from a complaint by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. In his initial interview with detectives, Bryant denied having sex with the woman the previous night and fretted about the impact her allegation could have on his basketball career and image. After the detectives pledged not to tell his Vanessa, he acknowledged consensual sex with the woman, according to a transcript of the interview later released in court documents.

“If it becomes public,” Bryant told the detectives, “I’ll lose my wife ... and all my endorsements.”

The woman, who worked as a receptionist and concierge, told detectives that she gave Bryant a private tour of the lodge on June 30, 2003, then returned to his room where they consensually kissed, according to police records. She told the detectives that when she tried to leave, he blocked her path, bent her over a chair, held her by the neck and raped her, according to sheriff’s records.

Bryant remained adamant during the interview with detectives that the encounter was consensual and he ceased intercourse when the woman said no.

Two and a half weeks after the interview, Eagle County prosecutors charged Bryant with one count of felony sexual assault. He pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Later that day, Bryant sat next to Vanessa during a news conference at Staples Center.

“I didn’t force her to do anything against her will,” Bryant said of the woman. “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery. I love my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone.”

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During that time, Bryant continued to play for the Lakers. He commuted from Los Angeles to Colorado on private jets for court hearings, sometimes missing practice or other team events. He called the basketball court “an escape” in the midst of the legal proceedings.

On Aug. 10, 2004, the woman filed a civil lawsuit against Bryant in U.S. District Court in Denver for sexual assault. The complaint sought unspecified damages for pain and suffering.

The criminal case against Bryant abruptly collapsed three weeks after the civil filing when prosecutors asked Eagle County District Judge Terry Ruckriegle to dismiss the case because the woman didn’t want to proceed.

The civil case never went to trial when seven months later, the sides announced that the matter “has been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.” The 20-month saga was finally over.

Even as prosecutors dropped the charge, much was made of the fact that Bryant bought Vanessa an eight-carat purple diamond ring with an estimated value of $4 million. Recently, in a “Showtime” documentary, he wondered if stress from the incident contributed to her suffering a miscarriage.

The following year brought more drama when Vanessa accused Lakers forward Karl Malone of acting inappropriately toward her at a game. The allegation led to an angry telephone exchange between Bryant and Malone, who denied making a pass but apologized for saying anything that might have offended her.

By then, Vanessa’s pop culture persona had fully aligned with that of her husband.

He was the basketball superstar revered for his immense talent and competitive drive, yet never fully embraced by fans in the way Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan had been.

She was an equally polarizing figure. Some people viewed her as strong and protective of her family. They saw her as a powerful influence on one of Los Angeles’ biggest stars.

Others criticized her for confronting fans at Lakers games or cursing at reporters outside the locker room. It did not help her reputation when a sports magazine referred to the Malone incident as “Vanessa-gate” and columnists compared her to Yoko Ono, the wife of John Lennon who was once blamed for breaking up the Beatles.

Bad press continued in 2009 when a former housekeeper sued the Bryants, alleging Vanessa had verbally abused and humiliated her while she worked at the couple’s Newport Coast home.

The Bryants denied the allegations and subsequently countersued Maria Jimenez, saying she violated a confidentiality agreement by discussing their private affairs in public.

Two years later, Vanessa filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

The Lakers had previously given Bryant a contract extension worth $83.5 million, so there was considerable speculation about whether Vanessa had signed a prenuptial agreement.

The couple issued a joint statement saying that they intended to share custody of their children — a second daughter, Gianna Maria, was born in 2006 — and that they had “resolved all the issues of their divorce privately.”

On the day of that infamous 2003 news conference, the only comment from Vanessa came by way of a statement in which she referred to handling the situation “within our marriage.”

A fiercely guarded woman living under the microscope, she would later deal with her troubled marriage in the same behind-the-scenes manner.

Rumors began to percolate that the couple was attempting a reconciliation. Vanessa made an appearance at Staples Center in early 2012 and again during an exhibition game the following season. The media noted her glittery shoes.

In January 2013, she announced on Instagram the divorce had been called off. Bryant confirmed as much on Facebook.

As her husband’s basketball career neared its end, she once again became a fixture behind the Lakers bench. Yet, while he grew increasingly open with reporters and the public, she remained circumspect.

When Bryant announced in November his plans to retire, Vanessa released a brief statement.

“I’m so excited to see what God has in store for us as a family now that one chapter is closing and new ones are opening,” she wrote.

MORE ON KOBE BRYANT

Every shot Kobe Bryant ever took. All 30,699 of them

Plaschke: As hero or villain, Bryant never took the middle ground

Special Report: Remembering Bryant’s 20-year career with the Lakers


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