Bryant could plead not guilty Thursday

EAGLE, Colo. -- When last seen in this small mountain town,
Kobe Bryant spent seven minutes in court and uttered just two
words. He returns Thursday for an appearance that could be just as
brief -- but the two words he says might be a lot more significant.

Depending on what strategy his lawyers choose, Bryant could
enter a plea of not guilty Thursday to the charge he sexually
assaulted a hotel worker. If he does, it will begin the legal
countdown to a celebrity trial the likes of which have not been
seen since O.J. Simpson was tried on murder charges eight years

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that he hoped Bryant would be back with the team in time for practice Friday afternoon but that he would understand if Bryant needed to take a little time off.

Asked how much he knew about Bryant's itinerary for the next few days, Jackson said his player had made the arrangements himself.

"I know he's got an obligation to go through some things," Jackson said. "Obviously, this [hearing Thursday] is going to put a lot of things in motion. He may have to take some time to plot, plan, get some things laid out. We're not trying to infringe on that. [But] at some point in the near future, we expect him to be on the court playing with us."

Already, a media throng that includes former Simpson prosecutor
Marcia Clark is in place for Bryant's hearing, scheduled for 3 p.m. ET. This will be Bryant's second appearance in two
months before a judge used to dealing with more
mundane matters like petty theft and drunken driving.

A gag order is in place for all participants in the case, but
that hasn't stopped some 300 television, print and radio types from
gathering to report -- and speculate -- on what fate awaits Bryant.

Unlike at Bryant's first appearance, cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom. And, unlike that Aug. 6 hearing, there is some
question just what will go on when the NBA star walks with his
lawyers into Judge Frederick Gannett's court this time.

During the August hearing, Bryant only spoke the words "No,
sir," when Gannett asked if he objected to giving up his right to
have a preliminary hearing within 30 days.

Thursday's session is scheduled as a preliminary hearing, where
a sheriff's detective would take the stand and lay out some of the
details of what happened between Bryant and the alleged victim the
night of June 30 at the Cordillera Lodge.

But legal analysts have speculated that defense attorneys will
waive the hearing at the last minute because they have no chance of
winning it and little chance of procuring any additional evidence
they don't already possess.

By waiving the hearing, the defense would also let details of
the alleged sexual assault go unchallenged in public until trial.

"From a public relations standpoint, that type of evidence
would most likely be very damaging to Kobe Bryant's reputation,"
said Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor and a professor at the
University of Denver law school.

Bryant has to appear Thursday regardless of the defense
strategy. Even if the hearing is waived he faces a bail hearing --
and there is a possibility he could enter a plea during an
arraignment before another judge.

State courts spokeswoman Karen Salaz said two judges are already
on notice they might be called to preside over an arraignment if
the defense asks. By agreeing to an immediate arraignment, Bryant
would not have to come back to Eagle again in the next 30 days to
answer the charge.

"It would save him from going back and would save us not having
to go through this one more time," Salaz said. "If Kobe Bryant's
attorneys want to waive it and go forward, we're ready for that."

Bryant, free on $25,000 bond, left the Lakers' Hawaii training camp Wednesday to travel to Colorado. Although he has been working out a lot on his own because he is still recovering from offseason surgeries, Bryant went to the team shootaround to say goodbye.

While he was traveling, workers were busy setting up two rows of television platforms and last-minute preparations were being made for a court session that could be brief or could last most of the afternoon.

The uncertainty surrounding Thursday's court appearance stems
from an order issued by Gannett that forbids attorneys, law
enforcement personnel or anyone else connected to the case from
discussing it with the media.

That has led to confusion even among the various agencies
involved in the legal process. On Wednesday, Salaz was saying
everything was in place for an arraignment if requested by the
defense, while district attorney spokeswoman Krista Flannigan was
right next to her saying an arraignment was "very unlikely."

By Colorado law, Bryant must be arraigned within 30 days of
waiving his preliminary hearing. After that, he is guaranteed the
right to go to trial within six months unless he waives that.

There is no confusion about the attention the case has generated
in the media. Twenty-five of the 68 seats in the courtroom were
reserved for reporters, while others who can't get in will be able
to listen to an audio broadcast of the proceedings in an auxiliary

Local businesses were trying to take advantage of the influx
during the normally slow fall season in ski country. One resort was
offering a "Premium Press Package" that included a hospitality
suite and assistance with satellite vehicle parking, while a Vail
restaurant was offering a three-course meal of prime Kobe beef for
$35 under the heading "Kobe Gets Grilled."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.