July 2003: No matter what, Kobe’s going to be okay

No matter what, Kobe's going to be okay
29 July 2003 – Toronto Star

I’ve read only two kinds of stories about Kobe Bryant since the NBA superstar was arrested and subsequently charged with sexual assault at a Colorado resort earlier this month.

Of course, thousands of stories have appeared in newspapers and Web sites around the world, but most of what I have read falls into just one of two categories.

First are the stories, columns and editorials expressing shock that a guy like Kobe could find himself in a bind like this. Kobe, after all, is a three-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and he’s one of the league’s ambassadors.

He’s a nice guy with no earrings and no tattoos and no criminal record. These aren’t huge accomplishments for most of us, but they make Bryant look like an angel compared to the increasing number of NBA players we see in handcuffs.

Kobe’s afro became a halo. According to these stories, Kobe Bryant is as close as any pro athlete can come to being perfect. “So how could this have happened?” the writers cry.

Second are the stories in which a writer sifts through the shards of Kobe’s shattered public image and speculates about the basketball star’s future.

The usual conclusion is that, regardless of the result of the upcoming trial, Bryant will have to pay for his actions that night. “Guilty or not, we will never look at Kobe the same,” is the refrain.

He’ll pay with his reputation, which many pundits feel has suffered permanent damage, and he’ll pay when the corporations he endorses distance themselves from him.

The scenario makes some sense. It happened to O.J. Simpson nine years ago when he was arrested after his ex-wife and her friend were murdered. Hertz Rent-a-Car fired him as an endorser and NBC dumped him as an analyst. Neither company offered to take Simpson back after he was acquitted in 1995.

But I don’t think Kobe Bryant’s story will end the same way. Unlike Simpson, who was an ex-jock, B-movie actor at the time of his arrest, Bryant is at the peak of his game and his popularity. He has a legion of young fans with deep allegiances and short memories.

As long as he is handsome, charismatic and capable of scoring 25 points a game he’ll never have to worry about losing popularity. These days fame equals forgiveness.

Just ask R. Kelly. In the winter of 2002 the R & B star was arrested and charged with several counts of child pornography after videotapes were released of him allegedly having sex with teenage girls. Kelly then suffered through a rough couple of months.

Ministers and radio stations in his hometown of Chicago boycotted his music, and multi-platinum rapper Jay-Z refused to tour with Kelly in support of their album, Best of Both Worlds.

But that was last year. This year, if you’re younger than 30 you probably know some of the words to Kelly’s hit “Ignition/Remix.” Watch BET for an hour and you’ll probably see Kelly singing a duet with R&B legend Ron Isley or producing singles for the teen group B2K.

Another summer, another string of hits. And Kelly’s not the only one. In 1988 videotapes were released of actor Rob Lowe allegedly having sex with a teenage girl. He was vilified back then, but now, after a Wayne’s World comeback and an eventual stint on the NBC drama The West Wing, Lowe is preparing to star in his own series, Lyon’s Den.

If Kobe doesn’t go to jail, I see his case playing out the same way. He might miss some games while standing trial but he’ll return to the NBA without losing any popularity.

And if he does go to jail, his fans won’t love him any less. His most ardent supporters will think he’s innocent, no matter what 12 jurors say. Like fans of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, they’ll revere Bryant as a martyr if he’s convicted. It may boggle the mind that fans would continue to cheer for a rapist, but Tyson still sells tickets. That’s the point.

In time, like Tyson, Bryant would become cast as the victim. The crime forgotten, his fans would focus on the cruel interruption of a Hall of Fame career. And, however inappropriate the perspective might be, his return to the NBA would still invite comparisons to former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, when Ali was jailed briefly and lost his boxing licence for three years after refusing induction into the U.S. Army in 1967.

This legal trouble may even make Bryant more popular than he is right now. Darren Rovell of ESPN.com suggested as much in a story he wrote shortly after Bryant was arrested. In his story Rovell proposed that Bryant’s new rap sheet would win him new fans by giving him the “street cred” some people feel he lacks.

I don’t know about all that.

If Kobe were accused of smashing a bottle of Cisco over somebody’s head after a craps game gone bad, he might win some “street cred.” But he’s not. He’s accused of rape. This incident didn’t occur on a ghetto street corner, but in an exclusive Rocky Mountain resort. There’s nothing “street” about Eagle, Colo., and no “cred” to be earned.
Bryant might or might not be found guilty of sexual assault. Twelve jurors will answer that question.

But as bleak as the situation might look right now, in the end he won’t be a pariah.

Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star

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