BRYANT CASE: NO ONE COMES OUT A WINNER

At this point, it’s mostly about jail for Kobe Bryant. What else is in dispute? His reputation? That’s shot. His fidelity? Gone. His image as a nose-to-the-grindstone basketball player? History. This is the way we try celebrities in this country. We smash them to pieces. Then we see if they did it or not.

Whatever life Kobe Bryant once had, it’s in the rearview mirror now. His trial on rape charges has not even begun, won’t begin for months, but already the salacious details are trumpeted around the world. Today, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know what a 19-year-old hotel employee is claiming: that he pulled up her dress, pulled down her underwear, held her by the neck, forced himself upon her, and made her promise, when it was over, not to tell anyone.

Oh. And this: He made her kiss his private parts when he was finished, a final bow to the king.

How does Kobe block that shot? He can’t. It’s over his head. Beyond his reach. He already has admitted he was there, already admitted he had some kind of sex, already appeared with his wife at a news conference and called whatever happened “the worst mistake” he’d ever made.

Trials are supposed to be about guilt or innocence. But those are other trials, not this one.

Innocence?

Whose innocence is left?

The defense strategy

Not Kobe’s. And not this woman’s. It is very clear that this case will hinge on Kobe’s lawyers proving the woman is a liar. Not just a fibber. Not just a fuzzy memory. A bald-faced liar. An unstable personality. Delusional. Mixed up. And promiscuous.

There’s no gracious way to do that.

Already, in the preliminary hearing last week, when confronted with reports of the woman’s bruises, one of Bryant’s lawyers suggested they could be from having “sex with three different men in three days.”

This is just the beginning.

And it will all come back to one question.

When most folks think of rape, they think of dark alleys, late at night, a twisted pervert hiding in the shadows, pouncing on an unsuspecting victim, raping her — perhaps at gunpoint — and leaving her there in tears and horror.

They don’t think of a posh resort in the Colorado mountains. They don’t think of a young, handsome, NBA multimillionaire who has everything to live for. They don’t think of a freshly scrubbed 19-year-old who willingly gives a private tour in an admitted adrenaline rush.

So when we hear the Kobe story, we keep returning to this perplexing question, this one echoed sentence:

“What were they thinking?”

What will Kobe say?

And that will be the question on which this trial will turn. Was Kobe Bryant thinking, “I’m a superstar. All girls desire me. I can take what I want.”

Was the woman thinking, “Wow. I can sleep with a famous person. Wait’ll I tell my friends.”

People heard one version from that hearing. But what if Bryant presents a different version? What if his goes this way: “I was just being friendly. I was tired. I tried to say good night. She came onto me. She said she wanted me. She pulled up her skirt. She pulled down her underwear. She said not to worry, she wouldn’t tell anyone. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. She even kissed me when she left, and she didn’t seem upset at all.”

Then what? Is it different?

Yes and no. If the jury buys it, he stays out of jail. And he won’t have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his days.

But everything else is still lost. His image. Her image. His innocence. Her innocence. By this time next year, we will know more about the wheres and whats of their sexual encounter than a pornographic film director. And it only proves one thing:

If you want to look up to somebody, look up to someone you already know and love — not some stranger on a TV screen or in a sports arena. Or you may find yourself one day not only wondering “What was he thinking?” but what were you?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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