Kobe Bryant got everything he wanted. Isn't that what everyone said last summer? Wasn't that the premise when the Los Angeles Lakers gave Bryant, their star guard, a US$136 million contract and banished his two greatest tormentors, Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson?
Hollywood was supposed to become an all-Kobe, all-the-time paradise, with Bryant the dominant figure, on and off the court. After eight years of sharing the stage with O'Neal, the superstar center, and five bumpy seasons of playing under Jackson, the superstar coach, Bryant was, finally, indisputably, the center of the Lakers' universe.
Somehow, paradise turned to paradise lost.
And on Wednesday night, Bryant was squirming uncomfortably in his chair, hooked up via satellite, as the ESPN anchorman John Saunders confronted him, bluntly, about his "fall from grace." The choice of words by Saunders was a harsh but accurate summation of Bryant's past 17 months.
He has been accused of sexual assault. He has publicly admitted to adultery. He has lost millions of dollars in endorsements. His personal life has been dissected publicly. His popularity has plummeted. And he has been blamed, some say unfairly, for the breakup of the Lakers, the league's reigning dynasty, with three championships since 2000. So there was Bryant, on national television, fiddling with an earpiece and trying for the first time to make amends to a disenchanted public.
"I can't sit up here and say I'm not at fault at all for anything that took place," Bryant said, in a rare mea culpa. "I mean, if I could go back and do some things differently, I would. The Shaq thing, the Phil thing, and all of that. But there's nothing I can do about it now. I can only learn from what took place in the past and just try to move on and just try to do the best job I can and just try and help us win ball games."
"I've seen," Bryant said, his voice growing tight, "a lot of dark days."
The Lakers, the NBA's most venerated franchise, and Bryant, formerly its most glorified icon, remain the league's most compelling drama. It's just that in the past few months, they have gone from Dynasty to Desperate Housewives, and the soap-opera subplots are no longer offset by spectacular basketball.
The Lakers were 12-9 going into last night's game with Sacramento, third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference, just barely in the playoff picture. Bryant, the league's pre-eminent shooting guard, is struggling to prop up a team constructed largely of role players. He is averaging 27.1 points a game and on pace for career highs in assists (6.8 a game) and rebounds (7.6), but is shooting a career-low .397 from the field.
Worse, Bryant is again at the center of controversy.
Bryant recently accused Karl Malone, a future Hall of Famer, and a former teammate and friend, of flirting with Bryant's wife, Vanessa. The rift between Bryant and Malone sprung into view over the last week, dragging Bryant and the franchise down another notch.
"This thing is out of control here," a longtime Lakers official bemoaned. "It's a disaster."
Critics and supporters of Bryant believe that his wife, Vanessa, is the source of many of his troubles.
By Bryant's admission, it was his marriage to Vanessa that caused the estrangement from his parents, Joe and Pamela Bryant.