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THE KOBE BRYANT CASE

Ball Back in His Court

Criminal charges against the Laker star are dropped in Colorado, so he will be able to report to camp next month without jail as a possibility.

September 02, 2004|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant arrived at Laker training camp last October looking frail and haggard, a picture of fatigue in the aftermath of a felony sexual assault charge levied against him.

After 14 months of uncertainty and unknowing, Kobe Bryant now will direct his attention from one court to another.

Bryant will be at next month's Laker training camp. The prosecution dropped charges against him Wednesday, ending the criminal aspect of the case. Bryant still faces a civil lawsuit filed by his accuser that seeks unspecified damages, but the Bryant who appears in San Diego for the Oct. 4 start of Laker camp probably will look and act differently from the one who showed up two days late for last season's camp in Hawaii.

"Naturally we are pleased that the charges against Kobe have been dropped," Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement. "This has been a very difficult situation over the past 14 months for everyone involved. Kobe has handled himself with dignity and professionalism throughout this very trying ordeal. We have fully supported Kobe in every way we could over the past 14 months and never once did our support for him and his family waver. We will continue to support him as we put this behind us and move forward."

Bryant also made a statement, apologizing to "the young woman involved in the case" for "my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year."

Neither Bryant nor Kupchak commented beyond brief written statements, but Wednesday's events helped crystallize the Lakers' preparation for the upcoming season with Bryant more firmly in the fold.

With a new coach and a completely revamped team, Bryant's presence will help the Lakers integrate Rudy Tomjanovich's system with fewer hitches. The Lakers have only six players from last season under contract as they move from Phil Jackson's triangle offense to Tomjanovich's more up-tempo offensive vision.

In the larger picture, the dismissal of charges helped save the Lakers from stinging embarrassment and franchise-plunging reality if Bryant had been found guilty. By unloading Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers pinned their hopes on Bryant after signing him to a seven-year, $136.4-million contract July 15.

Bryant must continue to contend with the civil suit, but he no longer faces the prospect of jail time, a harsh reality that contributed to his fragile state when he arrived last October in Honolulu.

Bryant also was recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries at the time and said he had considered sitting out last season because he was "terrified" for his family members and what they would go through. The charges led Jackson to acknowledge that the Lakers would be affected as a whole, "no doubt about it, and we're going to live with it."

Despite initial concerns, Bryant missed only one game -- March 2 in Atlanta -- because of court proceedings, and the timing of his hearings worked out in the Lakers' favor during the playoffs.

Bryant's court dates during the postseason took place only during home games, allowing him on three occasions to travel from Eagle, Colo., to Staples Center in time for tipoff.

On one such occasion, against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, Bryant had 42 points and five assists in the Lakers' 98-90 victory.

Fan reaction to Bryant was at times vociferous and demonstrative, particularly on the road. The crowd was slightly hostile the first time the Lakers played in Denver, but there were no major incidents there or elsewhere.

Chants of "Guilty, guilty" in some arenas appeared to be balanced by fans who proclaimed Bryant's innocence.

Bryant's teammates won't report for a month, but the mood promises to be better this year.

"I'm very excited and happy for Kobe," forward Luke Walton said.

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