By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Five years ago, Kobe Bean Bryant was jetting between a Colorado courtroom and L.A. Lakers games. He was in the process of a meteoric fall from NBA golden boy to vilified, accused rapist. Sponsors were bailing, fans were booing and the star player with the infectious smile had become a toxic image for the NBA. Bryant had been considered one of the NBA’s good guys, at a time when the league was desperate for positive imagery. But in July 2003, this smart, articulate, squeaky-clean husband and expectant father went to Colorado for medical treatment on an ailing knee. He ended up at a resort in Eagle, Colorado where he had a sexual encounter with the front desk attendant. She alleged rape, the Eagle county District Attorney’s office pressed charges and a lengthy legal battle began. We’ll never know exactly what happened in that Colorado hotel room. What we do know is one of the NBA’s brightest stars had random sex with a woman other than his wife. The criminal charges against Bryant were later dropped and the civil suit was settled out of court. So while Bryant was never convicted of any criminal offense, he was an admitted adulterer. Unfortunately, this is neither uncommon nor does the public find it particularly offensive for most star athletes; infidelity and stardom being frequent dance partners. Bryant succumbed to the intoxicating lifestyle of the pro athlete, the roar of adoring crowds and the sense of invincibility they breed. Given society’s general tolerance of infidelity, Bryant probably was judged too harshly in the court of public opinion. But he represented all that was good in professional sports and we expected more of him. Sadly, when this saga ended, he seemed to have more in common with Mike Tyson than he did with character stalwarts such as Art Monk, Darrell Green or Grant Hill.
We all meander between our professional and private lives and when one is out of sorts, a common coping mechanism is to seek solace in the other. Bryant was no different. His therapist became the basketball court…briefly. In the years following his legal troubles, the Lakers declined from perennial championship contender to a marginal playoff team. Bryant’s relationship with star center Shaquille O’Neil deteriorated, contributing to the latter’s acrimonious departure from the team, he fell out of favor with Head Coach Phil Jackson and, as recently as this past summer, he attempted to force the Lakers to trade him. For most basketball fans, the passage of time created a psychological distance from Bryant’s worst of times, but until this season, he was still far from the pre-Colorado, Hollywood darling; that rare player whose game, regardless of the jersey he wears, is impossible not to applaud. So how appropriate it seems for Hollywood to be the setting of this return to glory. During this past season, some of the young players on the Lakers matured, the front office made a shrewd in-season trade and Bryant became a better teammate. More importantly, the Lakers began to win with regularity. The team finished with the best record in the Western Conference and is once again poised for a title run. Last week, as flashbulbs popped, Bryant, the former fallen star of the NBA, once again adorned that infectious smile and proudly accepted his first Most Valuable Player trophy from NBA Commissioner David Stern. At that moment the events of Colorado seemed a distance memory, filed away firmly in the past. Bryant, having long since reconciled with his wife and now a proud father of two daughters, has seemingly completed his professional reclamation.
How did Bryant navigate this journey? And why have so many steroid users in baseball failed to accomplish the same? In many respects, Bryant’s transgressions should be viewed as more offensive than, say, those of Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. While those baseball stars cheated themselves, the game and fans, baseball is, after all, just a game. Bryant’s act forever changed the lives of real people (Bryant, his accuser and his wife). In the spirit of simple answers to complex problems, a children’s book and familiar parental lesson may hold the answer to Bryant’s transformation. We’ve all heard a parent or teacher encourage us to admit our mistakes and to tell the truth. That’s timeless advice. In fact, I was reading a Care Bear book the other day (yes, I just admitted that in print…what can I say, I’m a shameless dad) that used “trouble bubbles” as a metaphor for life’s mistakes. The advice of mother Care Bear to child was to “pop those trouble bubbles (by telling the truth and admitting your mistakes)…lest they linger and get bigger (more problematic).” Bryant’s story includes an element that is absent from the story of our fallen baseball heroes: an admission of fault and an apology. Shortly after the accusations against him became public, Bryant held a press conference, admitted his adultery, expressed his disgust with himself and apologized to his wife, the Lakers and basketball fans. In that act, he opened the door for us to forgive. And forgiveness is what sports fans do best. Conversely, baseball’s arrogant denials are endless. Baseball gave us Palmeiro wagging his finger in denial at Congress and McGwire’s pathetic request to simply not dwell on the past. Bonds smugly soiled the greatest record in professional sports (the all-time homerun record) and Clemens’ fall from grace seems to get more bizarre and disturbing with each passing week. In addition to cheating (by all reasonable accounts) on the field, he appears to be a serial cheater off it (what’s the affair count up to now?). My how things could have been different for our baseball heroes had they introduced their steroid trouble bubbles to a pin. Instead, we were left waiting for an admission and an apology that never came.
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