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Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Updated: August 5, 12:14 AM ET
My case of mistaking Kobe's identity

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Friday afternoon, my house. The television is on, and there's a guy having a press conference. He is talking about indicting Kobe Bryant for third degree sexual assault -- which, in this case, is rape. The guy is saying he has a professional obligation not to go forward with this case unless he can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

There is a disconnect between the eyes, which take in the information, and the brain, which processes it. A few hours later, the pixels form lines on the television into an image that looks like Kobe Bryant, and that image is sent from Los Angeles 22,000 miles into the sky, and bounces off a satellite, and comes back down to earth, where it winds up in my television. But the brain is having trouble comprehending the image. When do we see famous people speaking these words in public?

The image says he has committed adultery.

Kobe Bryant
The Kobe Bryant we know never had to claim his innocence in anything.
The image asks forgiveness from his wife.

The image says, "I'm innocent."

But is this Kobe Bryant? The one I know?

And then I think: What do I know about Kobe Bryant?

I know he is a great basketball player for the Lakers. I know he is from Philadelphia. I know his father used to play in the NBA. I know he speaks Italian and used to live in Italy. I know he is really smart. I know what he looks like. I know some of the specifics of his contract. I know he lives in Orange County.

But do I know him?

These are the questions that go through a reporter's mind at times like these, when people that we cover on a regular basis are accused of monstrous things. In this line of work, you are a voyeur, an observer of the actions of others. Theodore Roosevelt spoke admiringly of "the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood." We are not those men. We write down what those men (and women) say and do, but we are not of them. We are always separated from them, and that separation is tangible.

Frankly, we fall back on that at times like these, because everyone asks, "Do you think he did it?" And frankly, we have no idea.

All I know is that the Kobe Bryant I've interviewed over the years would light up when he talked about his wife, and his baby girl. It certainly seemed genuine. Most of the time, it was volunteered. Not far removed from high school himself, he had married a girl fresh out of high school. His teammates thought he was crazy. He didn't care. His reputation was unusual, that of a young superstar that went straight home when the game was over.

"Being married has really opened my eyes to different things," he told me last year. "It's exposed me to another side of life outside of basketball, and has another balance to my life that I've lacked in the past. And as a result, my basketball game has improved tremendously ... being married just took my mind completely off of basketball. I found myself enjoying the little things. I rarely had the chance to talk to my wife during the season, especially when I'm on the road. So those little times you have to talk to her mean so much. You start finding the little things in life that you really took for granted. Now they're like the biggest deal. They're the biggest thing in the world, and it's really opened my eyes."

Now, I understand: Men can love their wives, and still cheat on them. That is certainly, at minimum, what happened here. There are those who would say that adultery in and of itself is condemnable, and that may be true, but I would argue humbly that we're dealing with something much bigger here, and besides, the adultery is something that Kobe and Vanessa Bryant have to deal with, on their terms. What we think of that is irrelevant.

Can you think of anyone else in public life not named O.J. whose reputation before the alleged crime is such at odds with the crime itself? What makes this so unnerving is the very idea that Kobe Bryant is the person being accused of it.

The question that is important, of course, is the one we can't answer, and that won't be answered until the trial (The trial! It is hard to type that, knowing what it means), so we are left with asking ourselves if Kobe could do such a thing. And we find ourselves back where we started, which is, you don't think so, but you don't know for sure; you couldn't bet something really important on it and not feel just a little uncertain. It certainly does not seem to be possible from the Kobe that I've covered. He is filled with that arrogance that all star athletes possess, of course; he has been challenged by the biggest, fastest and toughest in his sport, and he has dominated. But it is a far leap from arrogance to violence.

I have already been asked on camera if Kobe's alleged crime says something larger about athletes generally and NBA players specifically, and the question always vexes me. No one asks if Bill Clinton's trangressions say something larger about politicians, or if Bobby Brown's drug problems are indicative of the lifestyles of entertainers. But when Latrell went Sprewell on P.J. Carlesimo a few years ago, everyone wanted to know if this was standard behavior for pro basketball players, the logical consequence of years of entitlement. No, I would answer, I don't think you'll see dozens of attempted chokings of head coaches from here on out. And what happened between Bryant and that woman has no larger meaning for NBA players, any more than Keith Van Horn's relationship with his wife, or Jim Jackson's relationship with his.

But would Kobe Bryant going to prison be a major blow to the NBA? I would argue the league has never had to deal with the ramifications of something like this. It has tied itself as closely to Bryant as it has any of its superstars. His commercials are in heavy rotation on NBA telecasts; his No. 8 sells millions of jerseys; his team produces monster ratings. It can no more extricate itself from his troubles than it could hold the Finals in Chile next June. He is one of the league's Chosen, and if he is convicted, the league will suffer greatly.

No one -- save the woman, of course -- has more at stake than Bryant. Can you think of anyone else in public life not named O.J. whose reputation before the alleged crime is such at odds with the crime itself? What makes this so unnerving is the very idea that Kobe Bryant is the person being accused of it. We will find out in the weeks and months exactly what happened in that hotel room, and it may come to pass that these are accusations without merit, attacks on an innocent man's character. But it is unlikely we will never think of Kobe Bryant the same way again.

And no one's asking anymore if the Lakers will win 73.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.