Charity Hewitt slipped a No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers jersey over a little 6-year-old girl's head the other night. Their mother-daughter bond grew as they took their place in the stands, rooting hard and long for their favorite player. "Ko-bee! Ko-bee!"
Hundreds of parents in attendance at Staples Center also had no reservation dressing their children in Kobe Bryant jerseys, just as they had no reservation last season.
"She doesn't realize what's going on with Kobe," Hewitt said of her daughter, Jillian. "She sees Kobe as an awesome basketball player. In L.A., for the most part, people don't see him as an accused rapist. They see him as a Laker."
Not since the O.J. Simpson murder case a decade ago have fame and infamy collided more routinely in Los Angeles than it has at Staples Center this season. Ever since he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in his hotel room at a resort near Vail, Colo., last July, Bryant has teetered between criminal defendant and champion basketball player.
If Bryant has lost millions of dollars in endorsements, his allure remains secure. TNT's coverage of Game 3 between the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference finals Tuesday night reached 6 million households, making it the most-watched NBA playoff game in the history of cable television. The intrigue surrounding Bryant, his all-star teammate Shaquille O'Neal and his team keeps growing, almost exponentially.
Like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, the Timberwolves' Latrell Sprewell and other prominent athletes whose popularity survived controversy off the playing field, Bryant is proving that fans are more than willing to ignore an athlete's past -- especially if they perform for their team.
"As crazy as it sounds, I think it's a new measure of judgment of professional athletes, the ability to rise above insurmountable odds off the court to still perform to a stellar level on the court," said Rick Fox, a veteran NBA forward and Bryant's Laker teammate. "It's no longer just great to be 19 and playing in the NBA like LeBron James. Now you have to be 19, like LeBron, and deal with serious, life-altering issues. And then people go, 'Wow, this is the next level. Our athletes are going to court, but they're still playing.' "
Five times -- three of them since the NBA playoffs began last month -- Bryant has attended pre-trial hearings in Eagle County, Colo., by day, hopped on a chartered plane and returned to Los Angeles in time to perform incredible feats at night.
On Thursday night in Game 4 of the series, Bryant returned from Colorado just before tip-off to score 31 points, including a scintillating 18 in the third quarter, when the game was won -- putting the Lakers within a victory of the NBA Finals. In the five games that Bryant has made the round trip between Los Angeles and the courtroom, he has averaged 31 points per game -- scoring 42 in a playoff contest and winning a regular season game at the buzzer.
"The fans have been great, ever since I came here they have been great," Bryant said after his Game 4 performance. "I really appreciate that. This is home. When I step on the floor at Staples Center, they root for me. I'm a Laker and I appreciate that it makes me feel comfortable. It gives us a boost, and it certainly gives me a lot of energy."
Bryant's 3-year-old daughter, Natalia, and wife, Vanessa, greeted him as he left the locker room and walked out of the building to the adoration of security guards and well-wishers.
Bryant's dual existence challenges the dynamics of athletic hero worship, where an adoring public dwarfs the occasional hand-made placard on the road that reads, "Hey Kobe: No means no!"
Many Los Angelenos simply believe the basketball player that enraptures them with his play cannot be guilty because, in essence, it means they are guilty -- guilty in believing that a laser-focused 25-year-old who patted children on the head in McDonald's commercials, who seemed mature enough to marry so young, had another side they could not see and didn't want to believe in.
"We expect our sports heroes to be like our religious heroes -- Jesus, Moses, etc." said Ronald Kamm, the president of the international society for sports psychiatry in Oakhurst, N.J. "They got where they got through discipline, self-denial, repetitive practice and strong character. If Kobe is found guilty, it is a threat to the myth-belief system we erect around sports, religion and its heroes."
Why someone would fork over $2,400 to see Bryant play from a courtside seat at Staples Center is not the question; why not is.
"I can't say whether he's guilty or not, but as long as he comes to play I'm going to be yelling for him," said Alon Goldenberg, 24, in his snug No. 8 jersey. "His personal stuff has nothing to do with his game."
Snoop Dogg, the hip-hop and entertainment mogul, reached under his seat to reveal a No. 8 Lakers hat earlier this month during a playoff game against San Antonio. Watching the video screen above the scoreboard, the crowd erupted as the hard-edged rapper nodded his head. One former criminal defendant, showing solidarity for the player with the tarnished image.
The ultimate arbiters of Bryant's fate will be 12 jurors in Eagle, Colo., where his rape trial is expected to begin sometime before mid-November. Bryant, who faces a maximum penalty of life in prison, pleaded not guilty earlier this month. He says the sex was consensual.
The outcome of Bryant's trial is impossible to predict. But Michael Militec, a sports psychiatrist based in Birmingham, Mich., said the hero-worship surrounding Bryant is similar to the attitude taken by jurors in the trial of Jayson Williams, the former NBA all-star who was acquitted of manslaughter charges in New Jersey earlier this month.
"The jurors even told us, 'He didn't have the look in the eye of a killer.' So, of course, he was not one," Militec said. "Some could not get past who they believed Jayson already was in their own mind."
The sports world is filled with examples of prominent athletes whose reputations survived off-court dishonor.
Sprewell, the slashing forward for the Timberwolves, came to the New York Knicks in 1999 as an example of what was wrong with professional sports. The plot featured an anti-establishment player putting his fingers around the neck and choking the one person with any authority left in the game: his coach.
But less than a year after the welts on P.J. Carlesimo's neck had healed, so too had Sprewell's reputation. The moment he knocked down his first shot in New York, he went from America's thug to its counterculture hero.
"When you hit the court, you're not thinking about what people say or what happened," Sprewell said when asked if he identified with Bryant. "You're just out there worrying about the game. It's motivating. That's the only thing I can say. When everyone is against you, that seems to fire you up as a person. Either fold or hold the tent. I needed to hit the floor, I had so much built-up frustration. I wanted to take it out on somebody."
Lewis, the Ravens' imposing linebacker, was charged with two counts of murder and four other felony counts in the Jan. 30, 2000, deaths of two men stabbed outside an Atlanta nightclub. All felony counts eventually were dropped against Lewis, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice charges and was sentenced to a year of probation. Yet when he was named the most valuable player at the Super Bowl the following year, his story became one of personal redemption, Ravens fans celebrating Lewis as if he had overcome adversity equaling the loss of a parent. Never mind that Lewis recently paid one of the victims' 4-year-old daughter a reported $1 million to avoid a civil trial scheduled for June.
The trial that led to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995 for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman transfixed not just Los Angeles, but the entire nation. People were torn between the Simpson portrayed by his accusers and the Simpson they thought they knew as a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Hertz rent-a-car pitchman. Jim Hill, a former NFL safety and for the past 18 years a Los Angeles sportscaster, said drawing comparisons between the Bryant and Simpson cases has its limits, particularly because Simpson was accused of murder.
"Do I see parallels? Not really, because we're talking about two people losing their lives," Hill said. "But I will say we have never, ever covered anyone like this, with everything surrounding a single player. This is uncharted waters for all of us."
Fox explained the phenomenon in Bryant's case this way. "In some people's minds, the level Kobe has performed at has allowed him to have a statement -- night in, night out," Fox said. "Every time he goes out and plays above expectation, it's a stronger message -- you would like to believe if you're a Kobe fan -- that he's innocent. For those not in the courtroom, people are looking from the outside going, 'How does somebody guilty do this?' "
"It's the same way people see Barry Bonds," Fox added. "They think, 'How does somebody guilty of using steroids still hit home runs 500 feet?' Because it's still eye-hand coordination. And if he was so stressed about his guilt, would he be able to focus like that?"