<
>

Too early to tell how case will affect Kobe's season

LOS ANGELES -- The NBA season begins less than three weeks
after Kobe Bryant is scheduled to be back in a Colorado courtroom
for a preliminary hearing -- an obvious concern for Los Angeles Lakers fans.

"It'll obviously be a big blow if he's not around," David
Sniezko said after Bryant appeared in court Wednesday in Eagle,
Colo., on a sexual assault charge. "I wonder whether or not he can
truly focus.

"As he travels, he's going to hear from some fans in other
cities about his personal issues as well. It will be a major
distraction, not only for him but for the team."

Sniezko watched Wednesday's seven-minute hearing at a downtown
bar with a couple other patrons.

The Lakers open training camp in Hawaii on Sept. 30 and face the
Golden State Warriors in their first two preseason games there on
Oct. 7-8.

Bryant's preliminary hearing in Eagle is scheduled Oct. 9.

"Laker fans, Kobe fans, believe he's innocent until proven
guilty," Sniezko said. "Without Kobe, we may lose a game."

The Lakers added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton during the offseason to go with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal,
making the Lakers solid favorites to win a fourth NBA championship
in five years.

Of course, that assumes Bryant will be part of the team.

"My biggest concern is how this case is going to affect the
basketball season," said Lakers fan Christina Delara. "As good as
he is, I worry that this case will affect his ability to play."

Lakers spokesman John Black said it was too early to tell how
the Oct. 9 hearing date will affect Bryant's preseason.

"We'll sit down with Kobe at some point when it makes sense to
do that and discuss his plans with him at that time," Black said.

A noticeable hush fell over the standing-room-only crowd at
Downtown Disney's ESPN Zone in Anaheim when the televised hearing
began playing on a giant screen.

Julia Malit, 29, of Sydney, Australia, said she and her husband
knew nothing about the case when they arrived in California on
vacation. They were awed to see the case on every channel, she
said, because she didn't realize Bryant was such a high-profile
player.

"I asked the woman sitting next to me, 'Who's the girl?'"
Malit said. "I didn't quite know the extent of it."

Shaun Beutner, 23, of La Habra, watched the hearing intently.
Beutner said when Bryant was first arrested, he believed the
24-year-old star was innocent. Now, Buetner said, he's not so sure.

"They're talking about a lot of evidence," he said, referring
to media reports.

Beutner said he didn't think Bryant could get a fair trial
because of his celebrity status.

"A normal case wouldn't get this kind of attention," he said.

Beutner and a friend said they came to the restaurant for lunch
but decided to stay to watch the hearing.

Beutner, a college student, said his support for the Lakers
would not change.

"That's my team," he said.

Krista Dickinson, 30 of Fullerton, came in for a drink and also
decided to stay for the hearing and defended Bryant.

"Everyone says he's guilty. I just don't think so," she said.

Dickinson said she plans to pay attention to the case because
she's a big Lakers fan. She was surprised by how brief the
appearance was.

"That was really quick," she said.

Even Judge Frederick Gannett said: "This is a very fast event
for so much attention."

Jon Wolff, 56, an education consultant from San Diego, watched
the hearing at a hotel bar in downtown Los Angeles. Alone in the
bar, he shook his head as he watched.

"He has an uphill battle from what I read," Wolff said. "But
maybe it will be the O.J. Simpson syndrome. With all those lawyers,
he may be able to maneuver around it."