Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Kobe: Hunter or hunted?

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Image is everything, and nothing at all. It can be the cover mistaken for the book, the shadow mistaken for the soul, the poll numbers mistaken for the true measure of a shooting star.

In a recent ranking of role models, a Junior Achievement/Harris Interactive survey of American teenagers found parents at No. 1, teachers at No. 2, and Kobe Bryant at No. 3. The percentage of kids using Bryant as their roadmap to adulthood equaled the combined percentages of kids picking President Bush and his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Who needs the White House when you have looks and skills, cash and charisma, three championship rings and one 1080 SAT score? Bryant has a crossover appeal to go with his crossover dribble, a talent for speaking Italian and understanding the international language of fame.

Speak softly. Smile often. Stay out of the district attorney's way.

Now a Colorado prosecutor is reviewing an allegation that Bryant is an all-American fraud, an impostor masquerading as the two-guard next door. Investigators and a judge saw probable cause to arrest Bryant on suspicion of committing felony sexual assault against a woman at a Vail-area resort less than six months after the Lakers' superstar cut the umbilical cord connecting his young wife to their first child.

Bryant should embrace his presumed innocence and hold it as dear as he held that first Finals trophy. But no matter how this case plays out, it should forever cut the cord between image and reality, fiction and fact. We don't know these rich and famous people. We only know what they want us to know, or what their agents, publicists and sponsors want us to know. Too often the distance between the persona and the person is wider than Shaquille O'Neal's body and deeper than Phil Jackson's Zen.

Revelations about bygone heroes and icons - the DiMaggios, Mantles and JFKs - should've taught us long ago to quit being rocked every time myth collides with human frailty. But I must confess that Sunday's news of Bryant's arrest shocked me like no sports-blotter bulletin since word hit that the police were looking for Marv Albert. In fact, when the TV anchor first teased to a major Kobe Bryant development, "accused of being a sexual predator" didn't make my immediate list of top 500 possibilities.

Certain athletes are impossible to imagine in the act of violent crime. Tiger Woods. Derek Jeter. Pete Sampras. David Robinson. Kobe Bryant. This allegation doesn't involve a corked bat and a tarnished home-run legacy. If Bryant did what the alleged victim says he did, the loss of his megamillion-dollar deals with the Lakers and Nike should be the least of his concerns.

"I believe there will be a happy ending here," said Gregg Downer, Bryant's former high school coach and current friend. "His class, dignity and accommodating way have always been his greatest strengths, so I'm real hopeful that there's no victim in this case and there's been some distortion. My dream is that Kobe spends the next 50 years continuing to be the role model he is. But if somehow there's an unhappy ending in this case, Kobe will have to learn from it and become an even stronger person."

Bryant will need all his strength if the district attorney, Mark Hurlbert, dismisses claims made by the player's attorneys that the local sheriff's office has moved at a "biased and unfair" pace. If Hurlbert clearly isn't thrilled that overheated investigators ran a back-door play on him and had Bryant surrender his independence on the Fourth of July, that doesn't mean the possibility of formal charges has been erased like a pick-and-roll play from a greaseboard.

"You look at O.J. (Simpson), Kirby Puckett and Mark Chmura and you see how hard it can be to convict a popular athlete," said Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. "But for this woman to come forward immediately, and for the police and a judge to move on it so quickly, it makes me think something's there. It's one thing to say you've been hit by Mike Tyson; he's an easy target. But Kobe Bryant is an uphill battle. This woman knows she's leaving herself open to ridicule and harassment, so she wouldn't make this charge lightly."

Not when Bryant had been cast as the anti-Iverson. Not when Bryant had been cast as the next Jordan, sans some real-life soap-opera episodes MJ wouldn't want to share with the little boys and girls still renting Space Jam.

"We see these stars in public when the camera's on, when everything's great," Redmond said. "We don't often see the other side."

If there is another side. Once upon a time as a budding rap artist, Bryant sang these words while lamenting the woman who chased his fortune and fame:

"Think ya eyein' me, all along, I'm eyein' you

"The hunter becomes the hunted, girl, I'm preying on you. ...

"I figure, hour-glass figures could be dangerous

"Cuz if your time runs out, they frame for your clout."

Is Bryant the hunter or the hunted? He'll answer that question for his wife, and then hope he never has to answer it for a jury.

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