Bad Defense Kobe Bryant's rape case started ugly, and it will only get worse

October 19, 2003

His insistence on normalcy is unnerving, as if the accusations of
rape that require him to appear in a Colorado courtroom are
simply troublesome, on the same scale as a nagging injury, say
tendinitis. A day after he attended court in the Rocky Mountain
town of Eagle, where a detective testified to the brutal assault
of a 19-year-old hotel worker by the NBA superstar, Kobe Bryant
was in the Lakers' training camp, pretending it was business as
usual. "I've got to come to work, right?" he said. "No big deal."

Well ... we'll see. His once golden life has been tarnished by a
night of what he says was "consensual sex," possibly ruined if
it's determined to have been rape. Last Thursday's unexpectedly
graphic testimony in the preliminary hearing, at which a judge
was to decide whether there is probable cause to order Bryant to
trial on a sexual assault charge, only hinted at the ugliness
that will surely follow.

Bryant's lawyers have chosen a scorched-earth defense. Going
through with the hearing--the Bryant team could have waived its
right to one and kept this testimony under wraps until trial
(probably next year)--indicates how aggressive the defense will
be. At the earliest opportunity Pamela Mackey, a Bryant attorney,
attacked the complainant. Referring to photographs of the young
woman's injury, Mackey asked in cross-examination if it was
"consistent with a person who had sex with three different men in
three days." That suggestion, which Mackey could not or was
unwilling to back up, earned her a recess in the judge's chamber
but pushed a promiscuous (and irrelevant) image of the
complainant into the media.

As ugly as that was, it won't eclipse the testimony from a
detective, who described what Bryant's accuser told him about the
encounter: "Forced her to turn around, bent her over a chair,
pulled her panties down and entered her from the rear." Asked the
length of the encounter, the detective said, "Five minutes." The
accuser also told the detective she was crying as Bryant moaned,
'I like Vail, Colorado.'"

That image will have a lot of hang time, and it is not one that
will promote normalcy for Bryant or anyone in his vicinity. When
the Lakers opened camp in Honolulu last week, they were met by an
awesome array of media, probably five boom mikes per Laker. They
may be jaded celebrity glamour-pusses, but this was certainly the
first time the team had to issue a press credential to
Entertainment Tonight for a preseason game with the Golden State
Warriors. (Celebrity Justice's request for a credential, however,
was denied.)

The team had hoped to be in the spotlight for its daring
acquisitions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, giving them, as the
players would point out over and over, four future Hall of Famers
at coach Phil Jackson's Zen-like disposal. Instead, with Bryant
having missed the team plane to Hawaii (he showed up a day late),
all questions were about the possibility that Jackson might have
only three future Hall of Famers to deploy.

Shaquille O'Neal was weirdly playful, adopting a
no-comment-by-acronym policy. "CAT," he said, when asked about
Kobe's predicament. Huh? "Can't Answer That." Then he purred, as
feline as anybody can be at 7'1". When Kobe did arrive (having
been "under the weather," he said), he displayed a large tattoo
on his right arm dedicated to his young wife, "my angel," and
said he was "terrified" for his family. Though he would not
discuss his legal problems, he did protest the accuracy of last
week's Newsweek story, which said there was trouble in
matrimonial paradise even before he visited Colorado. "You
kidding me?" he said, as if the tattoo were proof enough.

He spoke briefly of his new pressures, which (along with rehab of
his knee) seem to have prevented him from shooting so much as one
basket in the off-season and to have left him 15 pounds lighter
and out of shape to the extent that he could barely scrimmage. He
suggested that his fame, now infamy, was troubling, and he pined
for a life without "everybody making up rumors." But he intended
to forge ahead. "Do I look like a quitter?"

Three days later, at the Lakers' media day back in Los Angeles,
Bryant was similarly steadfast, almost blase. He deflected
questions about the hearing and the graphic news it generated,
except to say the back-and-forth from the Lakers to the courtroom
posed no problem. "I go out, take care of business, come back,
take care of business here."

His teammates, even after hearing details of Bryant's alleged
behavior, professed a combination of support and ignorance. Shaq
said he missed most of the news, on account of being glued to
SpongeBob, but that, all the same, he intended to be Bryant's
"pillow, his comforter." Others said the legal process would
grind on without undue Lakers participation or worry.

Of course, the Lakers must know, apparently better than Bryant,
that this insistence on normalcy is for show only. A year ago
they were being derailed by Shaq's big toe. At the start of last
season, there was no way the Lakers, three-peat champions, could
lose, and then they did. Failure to acknowledge the fragility of
success suggests an arrogance that is either heroic in its blind
wishfulness, or is just absurd.

Now the issue isn't a sore toe. A life is on the line. You can't
ignore that. --Richard Hoffer and Lester Munson

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL WITTE

"On Sunday the sport that launched a thousand riots felt like a
nice little game." --LETTER FROM EUROPE, PAGE 23

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