Say it Ain't So, Kobe

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July 4: After the incident, Bryant goes home to California but returns to Colorado two days later for a booking

They say big men don't cry. But they didn't say it last week — not if they watched Kobe Bryant speak publicly with a moist remorse that was almost Clintonian. The NBA's youngest-ever All-Star acknowledged having committed adultery. "I love my wife with all my heart. She's my backbone," he told reporters at the Staples Center, home of Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers. A tear scarred his cheek as he grasped the hand of his giga-gorgeous wife Vanessa and said, "You're a blessing. You're a piece of my heart. You're the air I breathe. You're the strongest person I know. And I'm so sorry for having to put you through this and having to put our family through this."

This is an indictment that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old college student and employee of the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., while he was staying there for knee surgery. The complaint, brought by Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, reads that Bryant "unlawfully, feloniously, and knowingly inflicted sexual intrusion or sexual penetration on" his accuser, whose name was withheld by police and the press.

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On June 30, Bryant left L.A. for a tendinitis operation that was to be performed the next day at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, the town of plutocrat-posh ski-resort fame. Bryant and his entourage checked in to the Lodge and Spa. Around 11 that night, his accuser, a concierge and receptionist at the hotel, went off duty. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant called his wife from his hotel room at 11:13. Some time later, perhaps around 11:30, the young woman visited Bryant's room. Why she went there, and what happened next, is for a jury to decide.

The next morning, Bryant had his surgery. At noon the young woman, accompanied by her parents, told the Eagle County sheriff's department that she had been assaulted. She went to Vail Valley Medical Center for tests. At 11:30 that night, some 24 hours after the alleged incident, investigators from the sheriff's office quizzed Bryant in his room and collected evidence. Hours later, technicians at Valley View Hospital took samples of Bryant's DNA.

Bryant fiercely denies the rape charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. He acknowledges that sex took place but insists it was consensual. "I didn't force her to do anything against her will," he said. "I'm innocent."

Another star athlete charged with sexual malice? Such an item is usually confined to that burgeoning beat, the sports-page police blotter. Kobe Bryant makes it front-page news — not simply because he and Shaquille O'Neal are the Guts and Godzilla of the star-studded Lakers, not because he scored 30 points a game last season or because he went straight from high school legend to NBA phenom. Not even because he recently inked a $45 million endorsement deal with Nike. But because he is one of the NBA's prime icons of clean and keen.

With handsome features and a name that sounds like a Pokemon toy, Bryant has the rep of a star a prim mother or an innocent kid could love. "For teenage girls especially," says Peter Zollo of the polling firm Teen Research Unlimited, "Kobe is way up there. Where Allen Iverson's been the bad boy, Kobe has been the pretty boy."

And, in general, a good guy. The son of journeyman NBA forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, Kobe speaks fluent Italian from having lived in Italy for the eight years when Joe played pro ball there. At suburban Philadelphia's Lower Merion High, where he led his team to the state championship and broke the region's all-time high school scoring record once held by Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe had good grades and sat scores. "He never really talked to women," says Emory Dabney, 22, a high school teammate who stayed friendly with the star after Bryant turned pro. "He concentrated on basketball and schoolwork, so he never let women get close."

For the next few months (a hearing is slated for Aug. 6), Bryant will be close to one woman — Pamela Mackey, his attorney, who successfully defended another sports star, Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, on a charge of domestic violence. She is likely to take a gentle approach in undermining the accuser's testimony. "I don't think you need to tear apart the victim," says Phoenix attorney Darrow Soll, who got charges dropped against Mike Tyson in two recent rape cases. "What you can do is say, 'Let's talk about the fact that a 19-year-old girl had sex with a basketball player who was married, and maybe her boss found out. What was she to do?' That's the approach. It's not: 'She's a liar; she's evil; she's a nut job.' It's: 'She's 19; she's a young woman; she made a mistake.'"

The accuser, who lives in a comfortable two-story beige frame house with a basketball hoop above the garage door, is already the subject of speculation about her emotional frailty — classmates say she had broken up with her boyfriend and was devastated by the death of a friend — and reports about her active sex life at the University of Northern Colorado, where she has completed her first year. But under Colorado's "rape shield statute," a complainant's previous sexual activity is deemed irrelevant and inadmissible. Rape is an act of violence. Period.

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