Five years ago, when they were teenagers in Orange County, Laila Laine's stepcousin Vanessa excitedly pulled her aside.
"She said, 'Guess who I met and guess who called me -- Kobe Bryant!' " Laine, now a Huntington Beach paralegal recalled, still laughing. "I said, 'Sure. Have another drink.'
"No one believed her."
If Vanessa Laine, then 17, was known for anything, it was for her sheltered life. Her parents scarcely permitted her to date, let alone entertain advances from NBA superstars in their 20s. When she had gone with friends the year before to Magic Mountain, Laila Laine said, Vanessa had to call home hourly.
Her one stab at the glamorous life -- a three-month stint as a music video extra -- had fallen into her lap when a company trawling for fresh faces had accosted her as she was leaving a hip-hop concert in Irvine. She'd gotten a handful of jobs, all with her mom on-set to chaperone her.
"Never in a million years did we expect what happened to happen," said the stepcousin. "She was just a normal girl. With a normal life."
Now Vanessa Urbieta Cornejo Laine is 22-year-old Vanessa Bryant, the unlikely costar of one of the more compelling dramas in contemporary sports. Since 2001, when Bryant married her, temporarily estranging his parents and many of his former advisors, she has been viewed as one of the few powerful influences on Los Angeles' most powerful professional athlete.
But lately, as her once-idealized young husband has spiraled from trial to tribulation -- sexual assault charges in Colorado, admissions of extramarital sex on national television, lost coaches, lost teammates, lost games, lost fans, claims of wife-poaching ("Vanessa-gate," Sports Illustrated recently called the ugly exchange that preceded Karl Malone's official retirement from professional basketball on Sunday) -- that influence has increasingly been drawn into the spotlight.
Paparazzi stalk her. Tabloids speculate about her. Her purple "makeup" diamond (the Santa Monica jeweler reiterated last month to The Times that it cost $4 million, though other sources say that figure was leaked as a prank to reporters) made People magazine. Her appearance at the 2003 news conference in which Bryant denied raping a Colorado hotel employee became both stock news footage and a "Saturday Night Live" skit.
Behavior that would be dismissed as the usual search for identity in another young adult has been scrutinized in her case by a public accustomed to noticing NBA wives only when they wave from championship parades or appear on behalf of charity. When she showed up at a Laker exhibition game in a tight pink tank top with "Fashionable [expletive]" on it, her outfit -- not so different from the look of, say, Britney Spears, who is five months older -- got almost as much attention as the strange tangle of tattoos that Kobe got to prove, yet again, that he was sorry.
When the state issued a new vanity plate for her Mercedes-Benz -- ICE QN -- sports pundits privately wondered whether the reference was as much to her demeanor as to her jewelry collection.
When her husband confirmed rumors that he'd accused ex-teammate Malone of making a pass at her in November, debate raged not only on talk radio but also on a panoply of Internet message boards that have sprung up to accommodate gossip about her.
Supporters called her "Da Baddest Female" and lauded her for bucking the NBA's old-boy tolerance for tomcatting. Insiders called her a pawn, saying she'd merely given Malone's handlers ammunition to generate some last-ditch buzz about an injured 41-year-old free agent who was weighing retirement. Critics called her a drama queen who would risk a multimillion-dollar franchise for another chance to make her husband prove he loved her.
The general impression was of a helpmate who, by NBA wife standards, wasn't, ahem, helping.
"Vanessa Bryant is the new Yoko," wrote Sportingnews.com columnist Matthew Berry, comparing her to the wife who was once accused of destroying the Beatles.
"Hey Vanessa," a sports fan asked in December in a letter to The Times, "Is Devean George going to play or not?"
It was not ever thus, according to people who knew her -- not so long ago -- in the stucco-and-cinder block heart of Orange County where she grew up. Vanessa Bryant refused to be interviewed for this article, responding instead through her lawyer, John W. Keker. Though she has made numerous appearances with Bryant, her sole public comment has been a written statement issued under her name in the aftermath of the rape charge.
"I know that my husband has made a mistake -- the mistake of adultery," her statement said then.
"We keep to ourselves, and those who want to talk can talk," said Sofia Urbieta Laine, 52, her mother. "The people who say negative things, God will take care of them."