Bryant: Wife urged him to play
HONOLULU – From behind eyes that appeared to have dulled through a reclusive summer, Kobe Bryant said Saturday afternoon that he is “terrified” by what might await those close to him, and that he chose to play the coming basketball season only at the urging of his wife, Vanessa.
Speaking publicly and expansively for the first time since his July 18 news conference at Staples Center, where he sat beside his wife and claimed, “I’m innocent,” of a felony charge of sexual assault, Bryant was cool and matter of fact over 20 minutes, standing in the University of Hawaii gym, surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras.
He hardly smiled and did not sweat, despite the muggy conditions in a facility that lacked air conditioning.
Three security guards, dressed in khaki vests, accompanied Bryant to his first Laker practice of the preseason, Bryant having arrived at 11 p.m. Friday, two days after the required reporting date, and having missed two practices Friday.
Bryant, who is expected to leave the team to attend Thursday’s preliminary hearing in Eagle, Colo., finished practice and walked across the gym, then fielded questions while still in his yellow jersey.
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As the assembled media had been advised by team publicists to avoid specific questions about Bryant’s legal issues, Bryant stuck mostly to themes of God and family, of a difficult summer of putting his body and family together again after admitting only to consensual sex with his 19-year-old accuser, and of returning to what he considers his job.
Asked if he was afraid – an Eagle County judge soon will determine if a trial will be ordered – Bryant said, “Terrified. Terrified. Not so much for myself, but just for what my family’s been going through. They’ve got nothing to do with this. Just because their names have been dragged through the mud, I’m scared for them.
“I feel like I can deal with this. I have to deal with this. But my family, they’re not to blame.”
Three months to the day after he was fingerprinted and booked and then posted a $25,000 bond in an Eagle County jail, Bryant appeared emotionally and physically fragile, lacking most of his usual swagger. He admitted that he was not in basketball condition, both because of the rigors of his court case and two off-season operations, on his shoulder and knee.
He said it was very difficult to leave his wife and baby daughter, Natalia, in Newport Beach, though he provided no explanation for his tardiness, other than that he was “under the weather.”
Teammates had speculated that the stress of his legal entanglements and the coming season might have kept him away, and Bryant did not argue that his anxiety, at least, kept him from his normal off-season workout regimen.
Indeed, Bryant said, while he was pleased to see some of his teammates, new and old, and was amazed at the off-season additions of free agents Karl Malone and Gary Payton, all things being equal, he would rather have been home.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like going through what I’ve gone through, what I’m still going through,” he said. “But I come out here to play. This is my job. I’m going to come out here, I’m going to do it well. It’s fun to be around some of the guys. They make me feel comfortable.”
He said he thought he was prepared for what lies ahead, where legal matters figure to collide with personal and basketball matters, and that if it appeared he was in good spirits, it was because, “I don’t have any choice.”
“I just wanted to spend as much time as I could with my family,” he said. “You go through something like this, you realize how important your family is, seeing my daughter grow up and being at home. Basketball is a distant second.
“This is my job. It’s coming back to work. My wife, my family and I, we’ve been dealing with this for a while now. We’re going to continue to deal with it. We’re going to continue to fight through it. I’m just going to come back to work and do what I do.”
As for the bleeding of potential court dates into the NBA schedule and the impact it would have on the continuity of what is expected to be a successful Laker season, Bryant said, “I don’t know. We’ll play it by ear and see what happens. I don’t know.” He looked the questioner in the eye and said, “Do you think I should stay here if I have something to do with the case?”
When the reporter shook his head, Bryant said, “Exactly.”
His own game also will have to fit around the drama of his real life.
“I’m concerned about it,” he said. “But, you know, this is what I do. This is my job. My family has been an excellent support system. They’ve been there with me every step of the way. Now I’ve got to come out here and put my best foot forward. I’m going to come out here and do what I do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, I’m going to focus on it and I’m going to go to work and punch the clock and see what happens.
“I come here, I come to practice, I play, I work hard. When it’s time to play the game at 7 p.m., or whatever it is, I play the game and that’s it. Nothing more than that.”