Just like that, it was over. On September 1, 2004, the longest, most perplexing, most exasperating year of Kobe Bryant’s life was over. His sexual assault case was dismissed.
“First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year,” Pamela Mackey, Kobe Bryant’s attorney, read in a statement. “Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure.”
Everything began 14 months earlier. The Lakers were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs, destroying Kobe and Shaq’s quest at a fourth consecutive title. Only days after the 2003 NBA Finals concluded, unbeknownst to Jerry Buss and Laker management, Bryant traveled to Eagle, Colorado, for an arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic. A young woman, then-employed at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Eagle, accused the then-three time champion of sexual assault. The charge carried a maximum penalty of four years to life in prison, or 20 years to life on probation and a fine of $750,000.
Not to mention the life-long stain of the label of “sexual predator.”
For an entire year, Bryant traveled back and forth from courtroom to arena somehow attempting to forge the impossible balancing act of keeping his marriage afloat (starting with this press conference), securing a fourth title with a “super team” of himself, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, focusing on an impending trial with accusations pressing harder than any full-court he had ever experienced and, of course, unwillingly becoming the face of a topic that has since become an unavoidable topic in America — sexual assault and victim’s rights.
Kobe’s numbers, of course, dipped in the 2003-04 season.
2002-2003: 30 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG, 45 (FG)-38 (3PT)-84 (FT)
2003-2004: 24 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 44 (FG)-33 (3PT)-85 (FT)
Perhaps the most indelible memory of Bryant that season – other than walking off the floor after Game 5 of the 2004 Finals – were the days when court appearances fell on game nights. Veteran SLAM writer, Bryan Crawford, saw the whirlwind as an escape. Even if “escaping” meant Kobe voluntarily throwing himself into a snake pit every night.
“I don’t know if he assaulted anybody, but he definitely cheated on his wife. So he had major troubles at home. On top of that, in every road arena the Lakers would visit, he’d be booed and called a rapist by fans. That whole incident changed him,” Crawford said. “He went from being a guy who wanted to be loved and revered like Michael Jordan, to someone who actually embraced being a villain.”
CBS Sports NBA writer, Zach Harper, remembers the spectacle. Pro-Shaq then, Harper originally saw the move as more theater than therapy.
“I wasn’t so crazy as to call him a rapist because I believed in the court process, but I probably thought his going from courthouse to court was an arrogant way of handling it,” Harper said. “But the way he played on the court, it was unreal to see him do what he did with that kind of pressure. Even with the irrational hatred, I was still impressed by that focus.”
That ‘focus’ was on display December 19, 2003, when Kobe – who came off the bench – mustered only 13 points, but nailed the two that mattered to win the game. That ‘focus’ was later on display in the playoffs in Game 5 of the opening round series against the Rockets where Bryant amassed 36 points, six rebounds, 10 assists and three steals. That ‘focus’ then reappeared a round later in Game 4 against San Antonio with 42 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.* Five times the Lakers dealt with the circus that arose with Kobe’s legal two-stepping. The Lakers went 5-0.
Such was the contrast for Kobe in 2003-2004. The highs were meteoric. The lows morphed Kobe into a social pariah, later brought forth by intimate and graphic details of the case emerging, like his infamous comments about Shaq paying women hush money. No in-between existed.
“I’m not the one buying love,” O’Neal would later tell Stephen A. Smith.
The 2004 Finals were the climax in a very public power struggle years in the making. Kobe and Shaq, for much of the season, appeared how many said Jay Z and Beyonce looked on stage together for chunks of their On The Run tour: disinterested and together because paperwork required them to.
“If leaving the Lakers at the end of the season is what I decide, a major reason for that will be Shaq’s child-like selfishness and jealousy,” Kobe told Jim Gray prior to the start of the ’03-’04 season in the explosive Jim Gray interview that essentially became the nail in the coffin for the Shaq-Kobe era Lakers.
They never recovered.
Shaq confirmed as much in his book, Shaq Uncut: My Story, and the games themselves spoke volumes. Re-watch the 2004 Finals. On one hand, the Lakers get swept had it not been for a virtuoso performance from Bryant in Game 2. On the other, it’s Kobe – with who knows what on his mind from the case, his desire to be L.A.’s top dog or power struggles with Phil – shooting the Lakers out of series, almost as to prove a sacrificial point of whose hands the present and future of L.A. basketball belonged to. Bryant played 18 more minutes, took 29 more shots and shot 25 percentage points lower than Shaq.
Nevertheless, Bryant re-signed with Los Angeles that summer and as the months passed by the case came unraveled similar to Kobe’s Lakers months earlier. Court documents were leaked to the media and the accuser’s name and sexual history were inadvertently released. The case became a circus act before ever going to trial.
Fingers pointed everywhere. Victim blaming, a very ugly tactic in similar cases, took place. CNN’s legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, referred to the prosecution’s dismissing of the case “a disgrace.” Former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman was beyond critical of District Attorney Mark Hurlbert and the young woman. “The bottom line is that Mark Hurlbert allowed his office to be used as leverage for an attempt to get money,” he said. “What a massive waste of taxpayer money by the accuser.”
Judge Terry Ruckriegle apologized to the court for the elementary mistakes. Even the accuser’s high school classmates had spoken against her in support of Bryant’s story of the events. Lindsay McKinney, who lived with the accuser’s family in 2003, said, “I hope he doesn’t end up giving her any money.”
The charges against Kobe were dropped a week before the trial was to start. The case all but disappeared from mainstream conversation.
Kobe somehow won and lost all at once. He lost the Finals. He lost his coach in Phil Jackson, who had grown so tired of Bryant’s antics he attempted to trade him in 2004 (much like he did in 1999-2000 for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion). He lost O’Neal, the Laverne to his Shirley (or in this case, the Martin to his Pam) in three consecutive titles. But he won his case. He won his freedom back. He won the right to a title he had so desperately coveted for years: “the guy” on the Lakers.
Heavy is the head who wears the crown, however. Kobe became the chief Alpha dog in Los Angeles on three consecutive teams that missed the playoffs altogether in 2005 and were defeated in the first round in 2006 and 2007 by Steve Nash and the Suns. 2006 included a 3-1 series meltdown and the notorious second half of Game 7 when Kobe refused to shoot in what appeared to be a silent protest for his “he-shoots-too-much” critics who bombed him after a 50-point Game 6 performance in which the Lakers still lost. Worst of all, the stain of his case loitered.
“I think there definitely is resentment lingering on some level. I don’t know if it’s at the forefront of everybody’s memory but it’s about halfway down the checklist of Internet arguments to make about Kobe Bryant when people come at you regarding him,” Harper said. “It usually doesn’t happen until someone is well out of argument about why Kobe is bad or an awful personality or whatever, but it still pops up.”
Sponsors eventually returned, who once wanted anything but an association with Bryant. As did some semblance of good grace. Phil Jackson eventually did, too. Winning two titles and a MVP of his own with Shaq migrating from city-to-city as the world’s largest nomad in the latter stages of his career helped partially alleviate the shadow of ” eternal sidekick.” And there’s always the sanctified number of 81.
“People in general and sports fans in particular can be very forgiving. As long as Kobe helped the Lakers win, that’s all fans really cared about. Now you see people wearing his shoes on the street and around the league,” Crawford said. “You still have folks – including players at all levels – who say he’s their favorite player and a number of people will be sad to see him retire because he truly is cut from a different cloth.”
‘Cut from a different cloth.’ That’s one way of putting it. Still a premiere beloved and despised player in today’s league and social media world, the perception around Kobe has changed, even softened as Harper sees it. He’s still a jerk and self-proclaimed asshole who embraces the title of such. At 36, and in the twilight of a career that began the same year Bill Clinton was re-elected and Tupac was murdered, he’s by far the most popular player in China and one of Nike’s “big three” alongside LeBron James and, for now, Kevin Durant.
Biting his tongue is a foreign concept that oftentimes comes at the expensive of teammates (i.e. Smush Parker and later Dwight Howard). But now he’s now widely accepted as history’s finest shooting guard not named Michael Jordan, though his detractors would be quick to point out he’s never shot better than 47% for a season and a career Finals average of 41.7%.
Such is life under the umbrella of the game’s soon-to-be third all-time leading scorer.
“All of that stuff showed maturity in him as a person and he’s become a better personality in public as well. Kobe seems like a real adult person now and not some arrogant athlete,” Harper said. “I think we see him as confident over arrogant now as well, which is a key distinction with public opinion. And honestly, that’s how it should be.”
It’s how it should be. Not to go full-fledged Jason Whitlock, but if any career has mirrored The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield’s “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way,” it’s Kobe.
For all any of us know, Kobe has two seasons left before he retires and does only God knows what. Two more seasons to put the longest and most gut-wrenching chapter of his career further and further behind him. Two more seasons to set records. Two more seasons to verbally accost teammates who fail to perform near his unequivocal expectations. Two more seasons, pending health remains in tact, to be the guy that has marveled and perturbed fans, regularly within the same game.
“Kobe Bryant is one of the baddest motherf*ckers to ever pick up a basketball and we may never see another player like him again,” Crawford said.
We might. We might not. The one truth undeniable about Kobe Bean Bryant, however, is this. His supporters have always loved him. He detractors have always despised him. And the case nearly broke him. Somewhere in the middle lies the most accurate description yet to be deciphered. But he has always, always, always given people the ability to form a passionate opinion about him either way.
Indifference never changed anything. Kobe Bryant is a lot of things. Indifferent isn’t one of them.
* – Another classic Kobe moment from the 03-04 season: the last game of the regular season in Portland as he nailed both the game-tying and game-winning three pointers in a 37-point showcase in Portland.