YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bill Plaschke

Somehow, He's Still Playing It Cool

October 05, 2003|Bill Plaschke

HONOLULU — He was the only one who didn't sweat.

Kobe Bryant stepped back into the maw of the beast Saturday, surrounded by dozens of reporters in a tiny, windowless gymnasium just before noon.

The heat was so bad, you could wipe it with a towel. The tension was so thick, it darkened shirts and fogged glasses.

In his first interview since being charged with sexual assault in July, Bryant showed both weariness and determination, yet most vivid was the one thing you could not see.

He was the only one who didn't sweat.

He wore a towel around his shoulders but didn't use it. He held a Gatorade cup in his left hand but barely drank from it.

Reporters at his elbows were dripping on their notebooks. Security guards at his back showed trickles down their cheeks.

Yet Bryant's face never revealed a drop, not one, a clean expression that left a clear message: Even in these most utterly naked and vulnerable moments of his life, he will remain inscrutable, unbreakable Kobe.

"I'm terrified," he said, but didn't show it.

"It's like a roller coaster," he said, but there was no dizziness.

He politely and patiently answered nearly 15 minutes worth of questions, all except the final one, which pertained to events on the night of the alleged rape, a question that a man facing life imprisonment would not address.

"Are you serious?" he said to the questioner, looking irritated for an instant.

Then he became Kobe again, smiling and shrugging before walking away.

"Be safe, guys," he said, to reporters who surely later wondered: Shouldn't we be saying that to him?


Some of the joy was missing from his eyes.

"You can't imagine what it's like, going through what I'm going through," he said. "But I come out here to play, it's my job."

Some of the bounce is gone from his legs.

"[The stress] affected me to the point where I didn't train this summer," he said. "I'll get back in gear here shortly."

But seeing Kobe Bryant for the first time since that surreal July news conference with Vanessa, one could hear the old bravado in his voice.

He was asked Saturday about the secret knee surgery that took him to Colorado in late June, when all this trouble started.

Did you tell the Lakers you were having the operation?

"Yeah, they knew."

Did you tell them before the surgery?

"Before? Does it matter anyway?"

What if they had wanted a second opinion?

"Too bad. They know me. I've always taken care of my body. They should know everything I do is calculated and meticulous. I'm just going to go off to some quack?"

The exchange had little to do with Saturday's events but everything to do with the days ahead.

Bryant is not coming back with olive branches or excuses. He wants to come back as he left, as a basketball player, and nothing more.

Thus, he allowed no special treatment for Saturday's news conference, just the usual post-practice sideline gathering, even though there were at least 75 reporters and publicist John Black deserves an award for making it work.

And, thus, he looked incredulous when somebody asked him why he would agree to subject himself to a season of scrutiny.

"Why not?" he said, later adding, "I've got nothing to hide."

This, however, includes changes in both himself and his surroundings since last summer.

His security detail, which numbered three guards in khaki vests Saturday, will be more visible this year, including, for the first time, women.

"It's very difficult for me to trust anybody right now," he said.

Conversely, his attention to the team and his game will decrease.

"Basketball to me just took a back seat," he said. "If you think I'll be kicking myself about losing a game to Milwaukee on a Tuesday, you're wrong."

And his attendance might be spotty.

"Do you think I should stay here if I have something to do with the case?" he asked, pausing. "Exactly."

And for the first time in memory, he is publicly talking about religion.

"It's tough. Sometimes it doesn't seem like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, you know?" he said. "You pray, you have faith, and the next thing you know, the light is brighter than ever."

Yet through it all Saturday, his presence was dominated by the same emotionless determination of a player who has wanted the ball in the final minute of every game he has ever played, and will handle it now.

"I'm just gonna be me," he said. "Whatever people say, they say. It doesn't matter to me at all. It doesn't matter to me."

And so, of course, he never quite explained why he missed the first practice Friday, saying only that it was not flu.

"I was under the weather," he repeated, offering nothing more.

And, of course, once he did arrive here, he did not travel with the team from the hotel to his first practice Saturday. They were already at the gym, stretching, when he arrived.

And, of course, when he arrived, it was same old, same old.

"He walked in, we all hugged him, and he started shooting, smiling, giggling, relaxing, same Kobe I remember," Gary Payton said.

A couple of hours later, when the practice and the interview ended, he was again that same Kobe, the last Laker shooting baskets, as dozens of cameras were shooting him. Shot, snap, shot, snap.

No sweat.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at

Los Angeles Times Articles