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Bryant may be many things, but a hero isn't one of them

Sports Views

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

Mark the date on your calendar. The Minnesota Timberwolves probably already have. Sometime early next Thursday, Kobe Bryant will stumble out of bed, get on a private jet and fly to Colorado to face his day in court. Later that day, he'll jet back for his night on the court.

The courtroom date is important, if only because Bryant will probably find out when he'll go on trial on a charge he sexually assaulted a teenage hotel worker last summer.

The evening date also is important. That night, the Lakers meet the Timberwolves in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals.

If form holds, Bryant's day in court will go quietly. If the same form holds, he'll play a magical game that night.

It's happened that way four times already this season, and there's no reason to expect it won't happen again.

That should concern the Timberwolves, who will have enough trouble beating the Lakers without any theatrical performances by Bryant.

And what happens after the expected exhibition of brilliance should concern anyone who gives more than a fleeting thought to the way superstar athletes are deified in America.

Commentators will be beside themselves once again over how Bryant somehow managed to endure another terrible day in court only to come through on the court he knows best. They'll marvel at his focus, his determination, his greatness.

It happened after Bryant scored 42 points to lead the Lakers over San Antonio to even their playoff series, barely six hours after pleading not guilty to sexual assault charges. Shaquille O'Neal was so impressed he called Bryant ''the greatest player ever,'' something he undoubtedly regretted right after he said it.

The next day, someone actually asked NBA commissioner David Stern if Bryant's actions were heroic.

Thankfully, Stern remembered that the men and women Bryant's age who are doing heroic things are in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're people like Pat Tillman, who give their lives for a monthly salary that wouldn't pay for an hour of jet fuel for Bryant's private jet because they have a job to do and a country they believe in.

''I wouldn't use the word 'heroic,' but I would say that it's a very extraordinary level of performance,'' Stern said.

No one disputes that Bryant is an extraordinary player, the kind who come along every once in awhile to amaze us with the things they can do with a game on the line. But let's not get carried away with the burden he carries on the days when he serves two courts.

Yes, he's got to get up earlier than he would like. But it's not like Bryant has to arrive two hours before takeoff to make sure he gets his seat on the plane, stand for 45 minutes in a security line, then take off his shoes to go through the metal detector.

That's how people in the real world travel, not NBA superstars.

In Kobe's world, it's a chauffeured ride to the steps of a private jet, and another chauffeured ride to the front steps of the courthouse. On the way home, it's much the same, except the car drops Bryant off at Staples Center for his night's work.

The toughest thing he may have to do before then is stay awake while his attorneys drone on in court.

Sure, there is mental strain, and plenty of it. Bryant faces serious charges, so serious that he could be sentenced at the prime of his career to four years to life in prison if convicted.

There's plenty of stress, too, in the life of a young woman who had to quit school, flee her home and endure death threats once her allegations became public 11 months ago. Funny, though, on game nights no one seems to mention anything about her.

In case time has dimmed anyone's memory, this is how prosecutors claim it went down that night last summer at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera: Moments after he met her, Bryant took advantage of the starstruck hotel worker by bending her over a chair in his room and having sex with her despite being repeatedly told to stop.

Innocent or guilty, it's not a pretty picture. At best, Bryant is an arrogant boor; at worst a callous rapist.

Bryant, though, may not lay awake at nights as much anymore thinking about life in prison. His lawyers are costly, but they are very good. Before the woman ever appeared in court, they were successful in portraying her to the public as something more than just a little promiscuous.

Like many rape cases with little physical evidence, it's a classic ''he said, she said'' scenario. Bryant comes across as a sympathetic enough character in court, and by the time his attorneys are done trashing the woman's reputation, good luck finding 12 people who will vote to convict him.

It didn't happen in New Jersey, where Jayson Williams got off on the most serious charges despite witnesses who saw him shoot a limousine driver to death. If Bryant's attorneys are half as good and believe me, they are you've got to like the defense's chances in Colorado.

You also have to like the Lakers in Los Angeles next Thursday night.

Just hope Kobe makes it for the early (6 p.m. local time) tipoff, then sit back and cheer the amazing things he will do on the court.

Don't forget, though, that the reason he's in Colorado is mostly his own doing.

And whatever you do, don't call him a hero.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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