Monday, December 29, 2003

Bryant Case Voted AP Sports Story of Year 

The young hotel worker's accusation was shocking enough: Thrilled by a chance encounter with a celebrity, she went to his room only to be forced over a chair and sexually assaulted. More startling was the name of the accused: Kobe Bryant.

Even with a trial months away, it became the most-watched case against a celebrity sports figure since O.J. Simpson was charged with murder. It was chosen the story of the year by the newspaper and broadcast members of The Associated Press.

In the AP voting announced Monday, the Bryant saga received 30 first-place votes for 616 points, beating out Lance Armstrong's record-tying fifth straight Tour de France title (19 first-place votes, 540 points), the Florida Marlins' surprising World Series win (12 first-place votes, 536 points) and Annika Sorenstam becoming the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour (seven first-place votes, 473 points).

Ten points were awarded for first place, down to one point for a 10th-place vote.

Rounding out the top 10 were: Ohio State beating Miami in double overtime for the college football national championship; Sammy Sosa caught using a corked bat; steroid scandals; Tampa Bay's Super Bowl win over Oakland; Carmelo Anthony leading Syracuse to its first college basketball national title; and Ben Curtis capturing the British Open in his first appearance at a major.

Exactly what happened behind a locked door at a Colorado resort June 30 probably will be up to a jury to decide next year. But it didn't take long for the accusations to hurt the reputations of Bryant and his accuser.

Reporters and Bryant's supporters and bashers flocked to the small mountain town of Eagle, Colo., over the next few months for a series of court appearances that brought out graphic details of the 19-year-old woman's charges along with revelations about her past.

Kobe Bryant isn't just any basketball player. He's an NBA superstar making millions a year on the court and just as much in endorsements. Advertisers saw him as the next Michael Jordan, and he enjoyed a pristine image as a likable player who was happily married and the father of a baby girl.

A 2002 poll rated him the third-best product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Jordan.

All that changed overnight when Bryant was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting the hotel worker who checked him into the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in the mountains outside Eagle.

The charges were so out of character with Bryant's public image that one noted television interviewer -- and friend of Bryant's -- immediately proclaimed on national TV that he would be "astonished" if the charge were true.

The accuser told police she checked in Bryant -- who had gone to Colorado for arthroscopic surgery on his knee -- and two bodyguards, then showed him to his room. Bryant, she said, told her to return in a few minutes and give him a tour of the resort. She did, and they later began kissing in his room.

The woman said she tried to leave, but Bryant pulled her dress up, forced her over a chair and had sex with her. Afterward, she was told to go clean up, she said, made to perform one final act, and ordered never to tell anyone about what happened.

Bryant held a tearful news conference in Los Angeles to deny the charge, while admitting he had consensual sex with the woman. He held hands with his wife Vanessa, who was given a new $4 million diamond ring after his arrest.

"I'm a human being. I'm a man just like everybody else. I mourn. I cry. Just like everybody else," Bryant said. "And I sit here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed for committing adultery."

It didn't take long for Bryant to understand the seriousness of the charge. He hired two top criminal defense lawyers and soon made his first appearance in the small Eagle courtroom, where a judge informed him he could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

As the Lakers began training camp in October in Hawaii, Bryant admitted being distracted and scared about his future.

"Terrified. Not so much for myself but just for what my family's going through," Bryant said. "They had nothing to do with this. But just because their names have been dragged in the mud, I'm scared for them."

Bryant's accuser, meanwhile, must have been scared herself.

She was the target of death threats -- including one left on her home answering machine -- and went into seclusion to get away from the spotlight. At Bryant's first court appearance in August, some of her former high school classmates wore the basketball star's jerseys and called their former classmate a liar.

Things didn't get much better inside the courtroom.

Bryant's defense team went ahead with a preliminary hearing where damaging details of the accuser's story emerged and painted him as an arrogant rapist so caught up in his own celebrity that he had no regard for the woman.

But Bryant's attorneys immediately signaled they were playing hardball themselves, suggesting in court that the woman's injuries were consistent with her having sex with other men in the days leading up to her encounter with Bryant.

And they made sure one more startling revelation came out before the two-day hearing ended -- that the underwear the woman wore to her rape exam had the semen of another man on them.

"She is not worthy of your belief," defense attorney Pamela Mackey told the judge.

A week before the NBA season was to begin, the judge ordered Bryant to stand trial on the sexual assault charge. His season would be interrupted by private jet trips to Eagle for hearings leading up to a trial expected next summer at the earliest.

Though Bryant was greeted by assorted boos on the road, other fans brought signs proclaiming his innocence to games and wore copies of his No. 8 jersey.

The Lakers kept winning on the court Bryant is so familiar with. His fate is still uncertain in a court he becomes more familiar with every day.

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