The wags try Kobe

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I was at the bar between sets at Sindbad’s on the Detroit waterfront when I heard that Kobe Bryant had been charged with rape.

“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”

The bandleader nodded. Oh, yeah, he was serious.

“They charged Kobe Bryant with rape, man,” he said.

That’s when the horn player piped up, saying he was sure the girl had set Kobe up. But when he heard what race the girl was, he saw the handwriting on the wall.

“She’s a white girl?” he asked, his head swiveling to look at me in surprise.

“Yep,” I said.

“I thought she was black!”

I shook my head, then he started shaking his — but for a different reason

“Oh, he’s through,” he said. “He’s through.”

Later on, the bandleader made the point that he didn’t really know Kobe, so there was no way for him to know what actually happened, but the horn player was adamant about Kobe’s innocence.

“I know what happened,” he said, still insistently hammering home his belief that Kobe had been set up.

“Well, I can’t say that, ’cause I wasn’t there and I don’t know the man, so …”

“I know,” said the horn player.

So that pretty much ended the discussion for the night.

The following morning I was at a golf tournament on Detroit’s west side. I was doing a lot more of just hanging around talking since I can’t play a lick of golf. I asked one guy who had covered sports for quite a few years for a major daily what he thought about the whole Kobe Bryant affair, and he echoed the horn player. As someone who has met hundreds of sports figures, he has developed a fairly keen sense of radar about professional athletes and the kind of world they live in.

“I’ve never met Kobe, but I’m telling you, these girls just wait on these guys. They know their names, they know what room they’re staying in, and they just wait on them. Now I think probably what happened is that once he was through he asked her to leave, but she didn’t want to go so she got mad.”

Who knows, right? This is one of those stories, just like the O.J. circus, where everyone from the top-floor executive to the wino on the corner is going to have an opinion about what the real deal is with the 24-year-old superstar Lakers guard and what ought to happen to him.

I do feel for the guy. He looked and sounded as genuine as genuine can possibly sound during his press conference as his wife sat supportively by his side. Still, I wonder what evidence the prosecution in Eagle County has that gives them enough stones to believe they can bring down a sports hero based on what looks like, at least from the outside, nothing more than he-said, she-said stuff.

“I feel after looking at the evidence that I can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert is quoted as saying in a July 22 CNN story.

Either Hurlbert is blowing smoke and doesn’t know what he’s up against in that tiny town, or he’s sitting on a keg of dynamite that could blow Bryant’s career to shreds.

For those who haven’t been following the story that closely, Bryant was charged on Friday, July 18, with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman on June 30 at a hotel where she worked in Edwards, Colo. Bryant was in town to have surgery performed on an injured knee, and his version is that she came up to his room and they had consensual sex.

The woman, who recently graduated from high school, filed a complaint with the police the following day. The evidence has been sealed, and Bryant’s next court date is August 6.

If Bryant is convicted, he could face anywhere from four years to life in prison, or he could be placed on probation and forced to enter a supervised sex offender treatment program that could last 20 years to life. Any way you look at it, conviction or no conviction, Bryant’s career is already taking on water and going down fast.

As phenomenal a basketball player as he is, hoops is only part of his career — and income. The other part is his carefully polished image and marketability, which is what attracted so many endorsements. Bryant just recently inked a $45 million deal with Nike, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that deal start to come apart at the seams just like Kobe’s image. If the image is shot, that means his marketability is shot, and if the marketability is shot, then that means Nike can’t make money off the man. And if Nike can’t make money, …

Bryant is a five-time NBA All-Star and the youngest player to ever win three consecutive league championships. He was MVP in the NBA’s 2002 All-Star game. He was the youngest player ever to join the NBA in 1996 at age 17. Now, at age 24, he may become one of the youngest to lose it all. Just like that.

“He got married when he was 19!” someone said at the golf tournament, indicating Bryant has probably been caught up in too much of a whirlwind at far too young an age. Being a sports hero, role model and husband has got to be one hell of a load to shoulder for a 19-year-old.

I’m the farthest thing from anybody’s idea of a sports hero, and anyone who considers me a role model for their kids … Yeah, well. As for marriage, I didn’t get married until I turned 40 so I can’t even begin to comprehend what it would be like dealing with that type of responsibility at half the age I am now.

But then, what if Kobe really did rape this young woman? I know no one wants to hear this, but if he did do it, then his young age and inexperience will no longer be a credible defense. Period. Because a young man, teenager, kid, whatever you want to call him, doesn’t have to be of legal age to know it’s wrong to rape somebody.

“The only issue I have with Kobe is that he should have known better” than to get involved in any kind of way with the woman, said a friend of mine recently. “By now, all those guys should know better.”

Some may say that’s harsh, but, well, it’s the truth.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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