Basketball: Disbelief grips nation as Bryant the role model faces sex charge

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The Independent Online

Imagine if David Beckham were involved. No, on second thoughts not David Beckham, since even hype-drenched America has not quite contrived an equivalent to Beckham-mania. Michael Owen or Paul Scholes would be a better parallel, but that is the measure of the sensation here that Kobe Bryant, guard of the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the NBA's most glittering stars, has been charged with sexual assault.

The incident in question took place late in the evening of 30 June, after Bryant had arrived in his hotel at a Rockie Mountains resort near Vail, where he was due to undergo knee surgery the next day.

The alleged victim who bought the complaint is a 19-year-old college student who was working at the hotel. According to media accounts, she went to Bryant's room, for reasons yet to be explained.

She claims she was raped; he insists the sex was consensual, and that his only offence was "the mistake of adultery". On 2 July, Bryant was arrested and released on $25,000 bail. On 18 July, after more than a fortnight of gathering physical evidence, the local district attorney, Mark Hurlbert, charged Bryant with a single count of felony sexual assault. If convicted, the player faces from four years to life in prison. That however is for a court to decide. Basketball and American sport, meanwhile, are still struggling to come to terms with what has happened.

But, one might ask, why? Star athletes and accusations of violence and sexual misbehaviour are a depressingly familiar mix. Mike Tyson is but the most notorious example. Each year brings a new crop of famous football, basketball and baseball players caught up in such allegations. Some are genuine, others are the product of a celebrity-seeker's fantasy. But Kobe Bryant's case is different.

He one of the NBA's biggest names, the first player to enter the big leagues straight from high school, a spectacular and graceful athlete who averaged 30 points a game last season and is frequently spoken of as the next Michael Jordan.

Thanks in part to Bryant, the Lakers - winners of three straight NBA championships between 2000 and 2002 - have replaced Jordan's Chicago Bulls as basketball's most glamorous franchise. Bryant already plays alongside fellow superstar Shaquille O'Neal; next season the Lakers will boast two more huge acquisitions, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

Even more important, Bryant has been been a poster boy for the NBA. His purple and yellow Lakers shirt, bearing the No 8, is one of the hottest selling replica jerseys in any sport. He has a beautiful wife, his high school sweetheart Vanessa, to whom he is utterly devoted.

In January the couple had their first child, and a day after the birth, Bryant wore his hospital ID bracelet in a game. He is handsome, with a winning smile, and nicely spoken - even to reporters. He may also be the only NBA player fluent in Italian, the result of having lived there for eight years while his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played basketball in the Italian leagues.

All this makes Bryant one of American sport's most marketable properties. He has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and McDonalds, capped by a $45m tie-up with Nike. Not surprisingly, when news of Bryant's arrest hit the Lakers, the reaction of his team-mates was stunned disbelief: "This is completely out of character from the Kobe Bryant we know," the club's general manager, Mitch Kupchak, declared.

Both the squeaky-clean image and the massive endorsements are now in serious jeopardy. Thus far, Nike has said nothing, but it is inconceivable the company would persist with the arrangement if Bryant is found guilty. Endorsement contracts invariably have a public disrepute clause allowing a sponsor to pull out if the principal is charged with a crime, let alone convicted.

And for the next few weeks, the headlines swirling around Bryant will be the opposite of wholesome. Assuming it is televised, the trial this autumn bodes fair to be a linear, if miniaturised, descendant of the O J Simpson jamboree. All the ingredients are there: a sporting superstar facing disgrace, a doughty smalltown district attorney who brought the charge, pitted against the bevy of star defence lawyers sure to be hired by Bryant and - of course - plenty of sordid sexual detail.

The fight will be down and dirty, as the media rake over every detail of the alleged victim. Officially, her name is being withheld, but that and much more is purportedly available on the internet. The familiar rows of TV trucks with their satellite dishes are lined up outside the courthouse in remote Eagle County.

Already unflattering leaks about her past are appearing in California and Colorado newspapers avid for every titbit about the case, although the past sexual activity of a plaintiff is inadmissible as evidence in a rape case under Colorado state law. But as the O J case showed, such niceties tend to be trampled in the media stampede.

Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers are trying to pretend it is business as usual, insisting that Bryant will report in September for training for the new season. But for the player at the eye of the storm, business is likely to be anything but usual for a very long time - perhaps for ever.