Monday, December 29, 2003
Updated: December 30, 11:29 AM ET
Back seat to saga: Lance's record-tying ride
The young hotel worker's accusation was shocking enough:
Thrilled by a chance encounter with a celebrity, she went to his
room only to be forced over a chair and sexually assaulted.
More startling was the name of the accused: Kobe Bryant.
Exactly what happened behind a locked door at a Colorado resort
June 30 probably will be up to a jury to decide next year. But it
didn't take long for the accusations to hurt the reputations of
Bryant and his accuser.
Reporters and Bryant's supporters and bashers flocked to the
small mountain town of Eagle, Colo., over the next few months for a
series of court appearances that brought out graphic details of the
19-year-old woman's charges along with revelations about her past.
Even with a trial months away, it became the most-watched case
against a celebrity sports figure since O.J. Simpson was charged
with murder. It was chosen the story of the year by the newspaper
and broadcast members of The Associated Press.
In the AP voting announced Monday, the Bryant saga received 30
first-place votes for 616 points, beating out Lance Armstrong's
record-tying fifth straight Tour de France title (19 first-place
votes, 540 points), the Florida Marlins' surprising World Series
win (12 first-place votes, 536 points) and Annika Sorenstam
becoming the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour (seven
first-place votes, 473 points).
Ten points were awarded for first place, down to one point for a
Rounding out the top 10 were: Ohio State beating Miami in double
overtime for the college football national championship; Sammy Sosa
caught using a corked bat; steroid scandals; Tampa Bay's Super Bowl
win over Oakland; Carmelo Anthony leading Syracuse to its first
college basketball national title; and Ben Curtis capturing the
British Open in his first appearance at a major.
Kobe Bryant isn't just any basketball player. He's an NBA
superstar making millions a year on the court and just as much in
endorsements. Advertisers saw him as the next Michael Jordan, and
he enjoyed a pristine image as a likable player who was happily
married and the father of a baby girl.
A 2002 poll rated him the third-best product endorser in sports,
behind Tiger Woods and Jordan.
All that changed overnight when Bryant was arrested and charged
with sexually assaulting the hotel worker who checked him into the
Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in the mountains outside Eagle.
The charges were so out of character with Bryant's public image
that one noted television interviewer -- and friend of Bryant's --
immediately proclaimed on national TV that he would be
"astonished" if the charge were true.
The accuser told police she checked in Bryant -- who had gone to
Colorado for arthroscopic surgery on his knee -- and two bodyguards,
then showed him to his room. Bryant, she said, told her to return
in a few minutes and give him a tour of the resort. She did, and
they later began kissing in his room.
The woman said she tried to leave, but Bryant pulled her dress
up, forced her over a chair and had sex with her. Afterward, she
was told to go clean up, she said, made to perform one final act,
and ordered never to tell anyone about what happened.
Bryant held a tearful news conference in Los Angeles to deny the
charge, while admitting he had consensual sex with the woman. He
held hands with his wife Vanessa, who was given a new $4 million
diamond ring after his arrest.
"I'm a human being. I'm a man just like everybody else. I
mourn. I cry. Just like everybody else," Bryant said. "And I sit
here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed for committing
It didn't take long for Bryant to understand the seriousness of
the charge. He hired two top criminal defense lawyers and soon made
his first appearance in the small Eagle courtroom, where a judge
informed him he could spend the rest of his life in prison if
As the Lakers began training camp in October in Hawaii, Bryant
admitted being distracted and scared about his future.
"Terrified. Not so much for myself but just for what my
family's going through," Bryant said. "They had nothing to do
with this. But just because their names have been dragged in the
mud, I'm scared for them."
Bryant's accuser, meanwhile, must have been scared herself.
She was the target of death threats -- including one left on her
home answering machine -- and went into seclusion to get away from
the spotlight. At Bryant's first court appearance in August, some
of her former high school classmates wore the basketball star's
jerseys and called their former classmate a liar.
Things didn't get much better inside the courtroom.
Bryant's defense team went ahead with a preliminary hearing
where damaging details of the accuser's story emerged and painted
him as an arrogant rapist so caught up in his own celebrity that he
had no regard for the woman.
But Bryant's attorneys immediately signaled they were playing
hardball themselves, suggesting in court that the woman's injuries
were consistent with her having sex with other men in the days
leading up to her encounter with Bryant.
And they made sure one more startling revelation came out before
the two-day hearing ended -- that the underwear the woman wore to
her rape exam had the semen of another man on them.
"She is not worthy of your belief," defense attorney Pamela
Mackey told the judge.
A week before the NBA season was to begin, the judge ordered
Bryant to stand trial on the sexual assault charge. His season
would be interrupted by private jet trips to Eagle for hearings
leading up to a trial expected next summer at the earliest.
Though Bryant was greeted by assorted boos on the road, other
fans brought signs proclaiming his innocence to games and wore
copies of his No. 8 jersey.
The Lakers kept winning on the court Bryant is so familiar with.
His fate is still uncertain in a court he becomes more familiar
with every day.