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Bryant's leap of faith

Posted: Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Kobe Bryant never used to talk about his faith. Funny how fast a man can get religion when he's in trouble.

Bryant floated through life as if he lived in a bubble. He had an effervescent personality, an affable smile, lively eyes. If he seemed oblivious to critics of his ball-hogging play and came across to some as a loner, he also could be genuinely gregarious. He was approachable, win or lose.

He returned to the Los Angeles Lakers a few days ago a changed man, understandably so for someone facing a sexual assault charge and a possible sentence of four years to life in prison. He looked joyless, yanked from his cocoon at home with his wife Vanessa, baby daughter Natalia and his ever-present bodyguards.

His priorities had changed, too, he said: Faith came first, family second, and basketball a distant third.

''Going through something like this humbles you,'' he said Monday at the Lakers' training camp.

He said he would gladly give up fame to live a quiet life with his family without ''everybody making up rumors about our lives.''

The latest report, in a ''Newsweek'' cover story, suggested he had been considering a divorce.

''Today I heard it mentioned that I wanted to divorce my wife four months ago, and because I wanted to divorce her she went into shock. C'mon man, are you kidding me?'' he said. ''It's way off base. I think people just pull it out of nowhere just to make stuff up and give people something to talk about. It's a shame.''

He showed off several tattoos he had gotten this summer: A crown, his wife's name, a halo and angel wings above ''Psalm XXVII'' on his right arm; his daughter's name on his left.

''This is a crown for my queen,'' he said of his wife. ''She's my angel. She's a blessing to me. Her and Natalia.'' He recited some of the words of the psalm and said he loved it.

Vanessa had sat holding his hand at a news conference in July when he denied raping his 19-year-old accuser and claimed he was guilty only of adultery for having consensual sex with her. Choking back tears, he apologized to his wife.

On his first day back with the Lakers, amid the familiar drumming of basketballs in a gym, he appeared uncomfortable. The next day, he loosened up a little and managed a few smiles, joining teammates in a paintball fight at Bellows Air Force Station, on the southeastern corner of Oahu.

This was one of coach-Zen master Phil Jackson's brainstorms to help the team bond, fighting vigorous faux battles with guns and padded uniforms. The four horsemen of the Lakers Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton each captained teams of five.

''We want them to have some occasions to be together in situations that aren't all basketball, and still let them grow a little bit as a group, so they can absorb the amount of energy people have,'' Jackson said.

By the end of practice Sunday evening, Bryant was hugging Lakers owner Jerry Buss, shaking hands and rubbing shoulders with Malone and Payton, relaxing around all the players.

By Monday, Bryant was moving more on the court and enjoying himself more.

''If everything comes together, this could be a fun team to watch,'' Buss said.

Indeed. The big IF.

The right knee Bryant had surgically repaired in Colorado a few months ago, the day after he allegedly raped his accuser in his hotel suite, still isn't strong enough to allow him to play. He ran some drills for the first time but won't be ready to play until at least the team's third preseason game next week in San Diego.

''I can pretty much do everything except explode,'' he said. ''My leg is weak at some spots.''

At 205, he's 15 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, in part by design.

''I've been through a lot of stress recently so I didn't really train that much (and) lost weight that way,'' he said. ''But I'll pick it back up here. Phil wants me to be on the ball a lot more than I have been in the past, and to do that I have to be a lot lighter.''

He said he would be ready for the start of the season in three weeks.

''My lungs will probably still be burning,'' he said. ''But as long as my legs can carry me, I'll be OK. ... I'm itching for some competition.''

All that was good news for his teammates even if the extraordinary challenge of playing the season and dealing with his legal case lies ahead. He has a date in court in Eagle, Colo., on Thursday for a bond hearing and a possible preliminary hearing. Until then, the Lakers are doing their best to welcome him back.

''I can tell that this is a comfort zone for him,'' O'Neal said. ''We have to make it like that for him. He's all joking, smiling, laughing until he sees you guys.''

''You guys'' would be the media, and, yes, the hordes are gathered to chronicle his every movement on court, as well as every development in court. Celebrity is a double-edged sword, cutting a swath through life in good times and carving out a treacherous path in hard times. Someone asked Bryant if basketball would be his escape from the criminal case and the unwanted notoriety.

''My escape is faith,'' Bryant said. ''Sometimes it doesn't seem like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. You pray, you have faith. The next thing you know, the light is brighter than ever.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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