At 5-feet-11 and 203 pounds, Latasha Byears epitomized the power in power forward. She used her girth to set body-crunching picks that freed up Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie to score. On defense, she snatched rebounds and dogged the opponent's best shooter. If a player physically rubbed her or a teammate the wrong way, Byears exacted payback, committing hard fouls while helping the Sparks win back-to-back championships.
Then, in June 2003, a few weeks into the team's drive for its third WNBA title, Byears was dealt a blow of her own: She was accused of sexual assault following a party at her Marina del Rey condo.
Less than a month later, a similar allegation would be leveled against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant by a Colorado hotel worker. The athletes shared more in common than the specter of a criminal trial. They also worked for the same corporate family, an L.A. institution that would treat the two ballplayers--one famous and the other relatively obscure--very differently.
The Los Angeles Lakers stood by Bryant. The team's general manager, coach and fellow players publicly supported him throughout his arrest, teary declaration of innocence at a televised Staples Center news conference and court appearances. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that Bryant should "absolutely" continue to play until proven guilty.
In contrast, as a police investigation was opened, the Sparks wasted no time in releasing Byears. She hoped to be picked up by a different team, but the woman who had worn the number 00 on her uniform found zero interest among the other WNBA franchises. She took a series of odd jobs, including a stint slinging JC Penney merchandise in a Buena Park distribution center that lasted seven hot, boring days. "It's not that the work was bad," Byears says. "I just couldn't take it. Playing basketball is what I've been doing since high school, and it's all I really know how to do."
In some ways, the uneven treatment of Bryant and Byears speaks to the obvious: Bryant is a marquee player--so famous beyond the arena that, like Arnold or Oprah, he is widely known by only his first name. He sells millions of dollars' worth of tickets and merchandise for a big-time sports franchise. Byears generated no discernible income for an unprofitable enterprise, and she had already made some other missteps on and off the court. What's more, in its effort to project a wholesome, family-friendly image, the WNBA is more sensitive to bad press than is the NBA, which could field a pretty decent All-Star team of players who have rap sheets.
And yet the 32-year-old Byears believes her particular predicament stems from something other than her largely unheralded status as a player or her reputation for unladylike behavior. She's convinced she has been ostracized for another reason: She is gay.
As a child in Millington, Tenn., a small town near Memphis, Byears related to boys. She was tall and heavyset, big enough to hold her own on the basketball court with her brothers and male cousins. And like them, she desired women. "I've been gay for as long as I know," says Byears, who goes by the nickname Tot-o, a moniker inspired when her grandmother called her "Tot" while she was growing up.
Byears says she never hid her sexuality from her family, which she says supported her. At Bolton High School in nearby Arlington, Tenn., a few people dared to pick on her, but she had found a refuge. "I loved women," she says, "but I was serious about basketball."
The top colleges in women's basketball wooed Byears--until they got a look at her transcript. Anemic grades and low admission-test scores sent her instead to a two-year college, Northeastern Oklahoma A & M, where she continued to bash bodies and score big. Division I schools were watching.
As a transfer student at DePaul University in Chicago, Byears averaged 22.8 points and 11.7 rebounds a game during the 1995-96 season, a performance that earned her a first team All-American slot. Along with impressive stats, she picked up a reputation as a tough competitor who once was suspended for taking things too far. "She talked some trash, did some 'signifying' to the other players and coaches, got upset at the referees, things like that," says Doug Bruno, DePaul's head coach for the past 19 years. He notes that while he found Byears to be "a pleasure to coach" and "inside is a really good person," she's "a nonconformist who knows she needs to conform, but sometimes has a tough time with that."
Despite her rough edges, Byears expected to be an early selection in the inaugural WNBA draft. Back home, she and her family gathered at a barbecue to await the call and celebrate the beginning of her pro career. "It never came," Byears says.