In July 2013, the most important items on Kobe Bryant's "to-do" list are fully recovering from a season-ending Achilles heel injury and ensuring Dwight Howard returns to Los Angeles next season. That's quite the contrast from where he found himself this time exactly 10 years ago. Mark Trible and Justin Tinsley examine the darkest phase of Kobe's career — his rape case, which ignited conversations about America's rape laws and the impact it had on his career moving forward.
Tinsley: Ten years ago, around July 2003 to be exact, life for me then was in some ways the same as it is now. Sports and music were vices my life revolved around. 50 Cent was the biggest rap artist in the world thanks to "Get Rich Or Die Tryin’." Dipset’s "Diplomatic Immunity 1" was the way of life for a Central Virginia 17-year-old kid preparing for his last year of high school. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were the new NBA kids on the block and the heirs to league's throne. T.I.’s "Trap Muzik" was the most anticipated album of the summer thanks in part to the chant-worthy classic, “24’s.”
And in a one trip to Colorado, Kobe Bryant literally became Public Enemy #1.
Even then, Kobe was unable to escape the label of “Shaq’s sidekick” and a kid whose talent was always overshadowed by immature tendencies, right or wrong. In some ways, and this could be revisionist history, it was almost as if some people I came in contact with then yearned for Bryant to be guilty based off grudges they had with his game.
Traveling down this road, we’re kind of opening Pandora’s Box. It's a topic and time we all remember but is rarely discussed anymore. Maybe we've moved on, or maybe we're unearthing dark memories from a time period when one of the league's brightest stars had his career and freedom hang in the balance. Mark, any memories from you during that time?
Trible: My CD player also had the blue and red discs interchanged for each ride. At 16 in Northern VA, I remember people assuming Kobe was guilty before proven innocent.
I guess that's the way it tends to go when celebrities or athletes brush with the law. But, who was Kobe? Like you said, he was Shaq's sidekick. He also seemed to be the self-proclaimed heir apparent to Michael Jordan.
He worshiped and idolized Jordan like my friends and I did. So why was he any different from us? Was it that he braved the new world of obvious ego-driven "swagger"?
The thing I'll remember most about that incident was very few people took Kobe's side when accusations were made. I think he came off unlikable — and still does to some — and he didn't yet have the résumé to overcome that. While Allen Iverson had endearing qualities of heart and smaller stature, Kobe appeared to have neither.
Anyone I remember really pulling for the guy only did so because they loved the big fella in the middle. They reluctantly cheered for the guy who rode those giant coattails.
Perhaps I was still stung by the series with my then beloved Sacramento Kings. My new jersey for the year was certainly purple. But it had the number four on it, and it read "WEBBER" on the back.
Why would I side with Kobe?
Tinsley: You sort of mentioned it there. The Allen Iverson dynamic was huge for where we grew up. In Virginia — pending you weren't of the belief Iverson was evil and should still be in jail for the bowling alley incident in Hampton nearly 10 years earlier — most felt as if they had to take Chuck's side in "the best two guard" debate. Foolish? Possibly, but that's irrelevant in hindsight. Kobe vs. Iverson wasn't Biggie vs. Pac, but in a sense, it was by how people felt so dedicated to one side that they had to throw shade at the other.
For Kobe, though, he's always been the natural villain. A sort of megastar loved for his asshole tendencies and hated for the same. He always relished that role while never giving much of a shit what people thought about him in the process.
From when he first declared pro (remember, he was the first to use the phrase "taking my talents to ..."), the air balls against Utah his rookie year, to being the youngest All-Star Game starter in 1998, to Phil Jackson damn near trading him for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion before Jerry West said no, to the on-court Jordan idol worship all the way down to chewing gum to all the other spats we heard about at the time, a large contingent wanted to see him fail because of a perceived snob-like mentality.
Remember when the boo birds rang down on him after winning the 2002 ASG MVP in Philly ... his hometown of all places?! That one moment was a microcosm of what Kobe's approval rating was in many arenas outside Staples Center.
So yeah, when the rape case happened, I think a lot of people — at least in Virginia — saw it as their "AH HA, SEE, I KNEW HE'D SLIP UP!" moment.
I can't say I "sided" with Kobe. I was never a huge fan to begin with, but I always respected his game to the point I knew he had the luxury of playing with Shaq, but I also knew dude wasn't a bum either. All that said, I never wanted to see buddy go to jail because I believed he didn't do it. I always perceived it was more of Bryant blowing her off afterwards and wanting to extract some sort of revenge. Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know. What really screwed Kobe over was the comment about Shaq paying his side pieces hush money, and from that moment forward he was branded "snitch."
My question is this. Granted, Los Angeles made the Finals (and even won a game thanks in large part to Kobe), but how much do you think this case played a part in the 2003-2004 Lakers undoing?
Trible: Good question. I recently saw an interview with Phil Jackson, and he said that whole ordeal really threw a monkey wrench into their friendship. Did it help unravel the Lakers? Possibly. It must have been tiresome and tough to deal with as a team.
Sometimes, we forget that even though professional athletes are professionals, the team dynamic still holds a ton of weight. If you were in a locker room with a guy going through the media circus of alleged rape — nonetheless if you weren't sure if he actually was a rapist — don't you think it would change the way things were? Talk about walking on eggshells.
When Kobe ended up being cleared, it taught everyone the value of "innocent until proven guilty." I think that had a shelf life that was probably shorter than it should have been.
Still, at first notice we march up to town hall with our pitchforks and torches. I suppose it's human nature, but it's also because we've now become conditioned to remain leery of those who we see on highlight reels.
It's easy to forget that the moments we see a player on television are actually a minute part of their lives. What goes on off screen makes a person. It's hard to differentiate an athlete from a person, but we must do that.
Ultimately, I believe the Kobe charges ended up being a burned bridge if for no other reason than he was great. It's easy to forget past transgressions when he's filling up the stat sheet, winning a title or an award. When the rubber hits the road, we simply lose sight of the past — and we're supposed to do that when a man is proved innocent — but I don't believe that's the only reason we do it.
Yesterday's news stays in yesterday. I'm grateful that Kobe's reputation didn't take an eternal hit for something he didn't do. Had he fallen off the map, who knows how we'd perceive him and that controversy?
Tinsley: My good friend Ron has always described Kobe's career sort of like the stock market. Where someone like Jordan — or even LeBron in the present — who failed over and over until he finally reached to the mountaintop, Kobe saw failure and success early, then failure again, then success again and is currently attempting to will himself back from an Achilles injury for one last grasp at success.
The rape case in particular makes Kobe's career unique for all the right and wrong reasons. Wrong because even as the case has become a distant memory for Kobe, the stain never truly fades and ranks as one of the pivotal and most controversial moments in sports history. Tupac once said in 1994 dying was never a fear of his, but dying with anyone thinking he was a rapist often drove him to the brink of insanity. Kobe, despite remaining largely mute on the case (for legal reasons), likely had similar thoughts, albeit extremely less obsessed with death than Pac.
Right because (and this is trivial in hindsight) somehow he managed to have spectacular games while sitting in a courtroom earlier in the day. Right because, in so many ways, he's sort of like the poster child for losing everything from endorsements, stature in the league and image and gain it all back tenfold.
Look, if Kobe's career takes a Gilbert Arenas-esque turn following the case and he pops up in the news every eight months or so for buying illegal fireworks with midget hookers in the backseat doing cocaine, he's an eternal punchline. Or in today's standards, a "meme." But he didn't. He hit rock bottom with the case, then hit rock bottom on the court for a few years only to turn it around. Now the guy's known as the greatest shooting guard of all time not wearing MC Hammer parachute pants disguised as jeans.
I don't feel one way or the other about Kobe Bryant, but a lot can happen over a decade to repair an image. However, if there weren't so many legal stipulations around the case, I'd say the unspoken period of Bean's career deserves the 30 For 30 treatment.
Trible: Yeah, but anyone who buys illegal midgets with fireworks in the backseat while hookers do cocaine off midgets should be a punchline. Wait, did I do that right?
All kidding aside, the Kobe conundrum is one that can be tapped from several different angles. I think that's clear. His legacy will be decided by whomever you're talking to at the moment they decide to tell you what his legacy is. Do I think those allegations tainted him? Not in an era where we forget transgressions as soon as possible.
And therein is the the thing that remains important to me. Kobe Bryant overcame his brush with the law in the public eye because he is damn good at putting a basketball in a hoop. In fact, he's better at that than nearly every other player who played the game save for Kareem, Karl Malone and Jordan.
There's a funny thing about this America we live in. We love to see the hero burn, rise from the ashes and fly again. The Dark Knight trilogy proved that again to all of us.
Kobe did what he did, and he ended up clean. Begrudgingly, most of his detractors found a way to put that behind them and simply dislike him for his attitude or unwillingness to pass the ball he's so good at putting through the hoop.
In the end, I guess there's no real clear-cut understanding of what this case did to Kobe or the Lakers or to you and me. What I can say with absolute certainty is that it's hard to believe those two CDs are scratched and broken now and 10 years felt like 10 weeks ago.
The 16-year-old me and the 17-year-old you probably couldn't comprehend what did or didn't happen then. Man, time flies.
Sports are all I know. Writing came naturally. Sports writer by night & sports writer by night. Philosophy major who thinks the unexamined sport is not worth watching. Always for hire, never for sale. I believe that silence is the virtue of fools and I can't hear you.