Kobe Bryant will retire at the end of this NBA season as one of basketball’s all-time greatest scorers and a five-time champion, but he will also remain infamous for sexual assault allegations which threatened to derail his career just more than a decade ago.
In 2003, a 19-year-old woman accused a then-24-year-old Bryant of raping her at The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, a hotel in Colorado where he was staying while prepping for knee surgery. Bryant has always maintained that he engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, who was an employee of the hotel. Criminal charges against Bryant were dropped a year later when the alleged victim refused to testify, and a civil suit against Bryant ended with a settlement out of court and a public apology, but no admission of guilt from the Los Angeles Lakers star.
Although in the aftermath of the controversy Bryant would make it to three more NBA Finals, winning two consecutively, the impact of the allegations has loomed like a shadow over the rest of his playing career. Bryant himself has said that the scandal contributed to his wife suffering a miscarriage, and he called the allegations a “turning point” in his life. “I lost sight of what is the most important thing, and that’s family,” he said in “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” a Showtime documentary which aired earlier this year. “It’s the man’s job to protect your family. It’s the man’s job to look out for your family .… It’s the man’s job to always be the anchor of stability for your family. From that aspect, I failed miserably.” Bryant is still married to his first wife and has two daughters.
Bryant lost several endorsement deals at the time, became fodder for a punchline in a “Chappelle’s Show” sketch, feuded with his teammates and his coach, saw his jersey sales plummet, and his previously squeaky clean image was wiped away forever. Still, ESPN personality Skip Bayless argued last year that the scandal gave the Laker legend “sizzle.”
“Remember Kobe pre-Eagle [County], Colorado? He failed in his first sneaker deal because he was just too clean cut, and I think it was Adidas that had him first, correct me if I’m wrong, but he couldn’t sell sneakers because he didn’t have enough edge,” Bayless said on ESPN’s “First Take.”
While, most sports pundits might not go that far, there’s no question that from a commercial perspective Bryant made a huge comeback. Endorsement deals returned, most prominently with Nike, where he re-branded himself, embracing his defiant bad boy image with the nickname: “The Black Mamba.”
“I had to separate myself,” Kobe said of the moniker in “Muse.” “It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created The Black Mamba.” But what was the real secret to Bryant’s renewed success? Winning.
“When the Lakers started hoisting the Larry O’Brian [championship] trophy multiple times, the perception of Kobe went from villain to hero very quickly,” wrote Derek Crouse for Bleacher Report in 2010. That same year, Bryant tied for first place in a Harris Poll ranking the top 10 most popular athletes in America. He has made the top 10 every year since 2006.
Nevertheless, the allegations against Bryant still come up occasionally. Earlier this year, a not-so-good-natured 2012 tweet on the topic from a rookie future teammate resurfaced. When Larry Nance, Jr. was drafted by the Lakers for this season, an old social media post referencing the allegations against Bryant was unearthed. “Gee I sure hope Kobe can keep his hands to himself in Denver again,” he wrote on Twitter at the time, with the hashtag “rapist.”
Nance, Jr. publicly apologized for the message, which Bryant brushed off affably. “Hey, you’re a kid. We’ve all said and done things we’ve regretted, and it’s water under the bridge. Welcome to the family,” he reportedly told Nance, Jr. It was both a reminder of how resilient the story is but also how far Bryant’s reputation, at least in certain circles, has recovered.
“It’s stunningly under-discussed as the media celebrates his legacy. Kobe bought justice by cutting a check to his accuser for a small fortune. He also threw [Shaquille O’Neal] under the bus when in police custody. Then he changed his [jersey] number, won a couple of more titles and it was like it never happened,” The Nation’s sportswriter Dave Zirin told MSNBC. “The entire episode says as much about the morality of the sports world as it does about Kobe.”
Today, the allegations against Bryant are mentioned in virtually every piece that sums up his legacy, but due to his late-career success — which includes an MVP award in 2008 and Olympic gold medals in ‘08 and 2012 — it occupies a much smaller space that many believed it once would or still should.