By Marcia C. Smith, Heather Lourie and Bill Rams and Kevin Ding
NEWPORT COAST, Calif. - A thick, black tarp drapes the front iron gate of Kobe Bryant's $4.1 million Mediterranean-style home in the exclusive Ocean Ridge area.
Three private security vehicles with tinted windows patrol the cul-de-sac and surrounding streets. At least three bodyguards - two with permits to carry firearms - hover around the residence, protecting the privacy and safety of the Los Angeles Lakers star now accused of sexual assault.
Since the allegations emerged, the fiercely private Bryant, 24, has been undergoing immense scrutiny.
Tearful and holding the hand of his wife, Vanessa, Bryant apologized in a televised news conference on July 18 for committing adultery but declared his innocence of sexual assault.
Earlier that day, Colorado authorities had charged Bryant with Class 3 felony sexual assault, accusing him of forcing a 19-year-old front-desk employee to have sex with him June 30 at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Bryant is free on $25,000 bail and scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Eagle, Colo.
No longer is Bryant just the public, polished, confident, smiling, slam-dunking, wholesome sports champion who saves basketball games.
Accused of a crime, Bryant, solemn and perhaps scared, is a man trying to save himself.
Called into question will be Bryant's off-the-court life and revealed might be sides of his character that even those close to him never knew.
With the case barely started, already more is known than the image may have led some to believe: Lakers loner, driven son who became estranged from his father, young husband who strayed and troubled man who could face life in prison.
No bad-boy image
As a player, Bryant has soared, throwing down dunks that rattle opponents' hearts and lift Lakers fans' hopes.
The 6-foot-7 guard is a five-time All-Star and a Lakers co-captain. His NBA championship rings could cover three knuckles. His seven-year career averages of 21.5 points and 4.2 assists are Hall of Fame-caliber.
Sports marketers pay the multi-lingual superstar about $13 million a year to pitch for Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, Upper Deck, Spalding and Nintendo.
His six-year, $71 million contract, which earned him $12.3 million last season, shows his team owner appreciates him. His No. 8 Lakers jersey is the top seller in the NBA.
Bryant wasn't the bad-boy athlete mixed up with drugs and guns. He was different.
Before now, his only legal trouble involved speeding. Bryant, who doesn't have a California driver's license, was ticketed for driving his black Mercedes S600 58 mph in a 35-mph zone on San Vicente Boulevard, near the Brentwood office of his agent, Arn Tellem, on July 25, 2001. He now owes $651 for the ticket with late fees.
Bryant's temper has tripped in the throes of competition: He elbowed New York Knicks guard Chris Childs and punched Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller during games and fought with Lakers teammate Samaki Walker on the team bus.
Bryant's uncle, Chubby Cox, who played briefly in the NBA, said Bryant's worst transgression was "putting his feet on my sister's sofa."
But does anybody really know Bryant?
NBA stars at a recent Magic Johnson celebrity game brushed off reporters' questions about Bryant. Lakers are reluctant to talk about him.
Away from the cameras, Bryant, the Laker, has been a loner, rarely socializing with teammates. He prefers to hang out with his bodyguards, or work.
Early in his career, Bryant spent two hours before and after practice shooting jumpers until he had 2,000 "makes."
"I have not coached another player with a greater work ethic," said Del Harris, who coached the Lakers from 1996 to 1998. "I didn't see him so much as flirt with flight attendants or anyone else in the two years I coached him."
At the team hotels, players invite Bryant to join them for movies, trips to the mall and dinners. Bryant frequently but politely begs off. Instead, he stays in his room to study game tapes, plan workouts with trainer Joe Carbone, or be alone.
During last season's playoffs, Bryant was the only Laker absent from the post-game meal at the Minneapolis home of forward Devean George's mother.
"I know he's an extremely private person," said T.J. Zanin, 26, a Memphis Grizzlies video coordinator close to Bryant since they played on a 1992 summer-league team.
As an 18-year-old phenom, Bryant jumped from Lower Merion (Pa.) High to the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal tagged rookie Bryant "Showboat." Bryant seemed ready for "Showtime."
Bryant pushed designer sunglasses atop his shaved dome right before he announced as a high school senior that he was taking his talent to the NBA.
He took actress/singer Brandy to the senior prom. He had a Screen Actors Guild card, roles on Sister, Sister and Arliss, and guest seats on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Tonight Show.
But the celebrity seeking stopped there as Bryant "was single-minded and dedicated to bettering himself in basketball," Harris said.
For the better part of six years, Bryant lived quietly in Pacific Palisades, barely getting to know any of the neighbors, preferring the company of his family, who lived in a modest two-story home a quarter-mile away.
For the past year, Kobe and Vanessa Bryant have lived in Newport Coast in a 6,376-square-foot home they bought from sports agent Dwight Manley, who represented former Laker Dennis Rodman.
His neighbors have watched Bryant come and go, driving by in a blur of a luxury car.
Sometimes it's the black Ferrari, or the black Mercedes, or the black Bentley or the Land Rover with the new "Baby on Board" window placard.
Before Kobe Bryant faced criminal charges, Kobe and Vanessa Bryant fit well in their gated community
They have wealth, the cache of celebrity, a daughter - Natalia Diamante was born in January - a dog, a Pomeranian named Gucci, and a love of privacy.
No loud parties. No disturbances. No problems. Many neighbors, as well as Robert Laine, the grandfather who raised Vanessa in Huntington Beach, didn't know about the two 911 calls from Bryant's home.
On March 5, paramedics arrived to perform "advanced life support" on a woman and took her to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Fire Department records show.
And on July 3, the day before he turned himself in to Colorado authorities, Bryant called 911 to get medical attention for a woman at his home. Paramedics left after 20 minutes.
"All of that is news to me," said Laine, 66, a former Long Beach police sergeant.
Basketball in his genes
Behind all of Kobe Bryant's success has been plenty of Joe Bryant's grooming.
An NBA journeyman who played with the Philadelphia 76ers, the San Diego Clippers and the Houston Rockets, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant saw promise Aug. 23, 1978, the day his third child, Kobe Bean Bryant, was born in Philadelphia.
Joe Bryant brought his family with him to Rieti, Italy, for eight years to finish his professional basketball career, then moved his children back to America in December 1991.
"Joe was networked into the NBA and knew what it took for Kobe to make the pros," said Norm Eavenson, who scouted Bryant for the Bob Gibbons All-Star Report. "Every step was planned for him, and Kobe was the beneficiary of Joe's knowledge and protection."
The Bryants lived in a two-story home in the upper-class Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood.
Joe Bryant started his 13-year-old son in the Sonny Hill Summer League for training and exposure. He took his son a mile to St. Joseph's University, where the practicing 76ers made room on the floor for an ex-player's son, and 15 miles to Temple University, where future NBA players Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie took Kobe Bryant under their wing.
For his son, the father coached, hired a personal trainer and handled media requests. He crafted the prodigal reputation befitting a consensus All-America guard and USA Today and Naismith National Player of the Year.
Bryant led Lower Merion High to the 1996 Class AAAA state title and established a Southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring record with 2,883 points, besting Wilt Chamberlain's mark.
In the stands for all the games was Joe Bryant. Often, Kobe's mother, Pamela, his two older sisters, Shaya and Sharia, his maternal grandfather, John Cox Jr., and uncle, Chubby Cox, joined the rooting section.
His family surrounded him the day he announced that he would bypass college for the NBA and the day he became Charlotte's top selection in the 1996 draft. He was then traded to the Lakers.
"Kobe was posse-less," Eavenson said, noticing the absence of rowdy teenagers in Bryant's entourage. "His family was always around, supporting him."
Except when Kobe Bryant decided to get married. That was a rift that caused a father and a son not to speak until recently.
A young husband
Bryant met Vanessa Laine, a beautiful 17-year-old Latina model, at the 1999 filming of a music video. He was a basketball star just coming into his own; she was a student at Marina High in Huntington Beach.
During the 2000 NBA playoffs, they were engaged, a public announcement that privately disappointed Joe Bryant, who thought his son - then 22 - was too young to marry. The news crushed Jocelyn Ebron, who believed she was still Bryant's girlfriend.
Ebron had dated Bryant during high school and continued seeing him when he became a Laker, according to her brother, Brandon Ebron.
Bryant married Vanessa Laine in a private April 2001 ceremony at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in Dana Point. His best man was his best friend and cousin, John Cox IV, a University of San Francisco basketball player.
Joe Bryant did not attend. Neither did Robert Laine, "for personal reasons," he said.
That September, the couple returned to Philadelphia, a hometown that boos Bryant whenever he plays the 76ers, to attend the funeral of Kobe Bryant's grandfather, John Cox Jr.
Cox, father of Chubby Cox, was a firefighter who cooked the teenage Bryant hamburgers and sent him NBA tapes in Italy.
"They sat next to me and held my hand," Chubby Cox, 47, said. "Now, I'm keeping my faith for them. They are a good couple. They understand the importance of family."
The young marriage seemed strong as Bryant was photographed embracing Vanessa on his lap during the Lakers 2002 postseason celebrations. People did not expect what was to unfold in the past two months for Kobe Bryant.
"How well does anybody know him?" Robert Laine said. "I know him as well as anybody knows their son-in-law."
Accused in Colorado
More than a month ago, Bryant traveled to Colorado to get treatment for his sore right knee at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo.
Bryant and three bodyguards arrived in Colorado on June 30 and checked into the exclusive Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, a 56-room resort.
What happened that evening in a $600-a-night deluxe suite between Bryant and a 19-year-old Eagle woman is the subject of the criminal case. The woman's name is being withheld to protect victims in sexual-assault cases.
"She said it was late, so she went to deliver him something," Ashley Scriver, 19, said in describing a conversation she had with her best friend. "She said he was very nice, playing it cool, totally playing off his image. Then he just went crazy," Scriver said.
On July 1, Bryant went to Vail for arthroscopic knee surgery; the woman and her parents went to the Eagle County Sheriff's Department to report a sexual assault.
Around 11 p.m. that night, police questioned Bryant at the lodge for about two hours. Authorities then took Bryant 50 miles west to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Around 2:30 a.m. July 2, three of Bryant's bodyguards called Vail Taxi for a ride from the lodge to the hospital. They asked driver Terry O'Brien to dim the cab's interior lights and turn up the radio while they made cell-phone calls.
"One man said they were on their way to pick up a friend who was 'having the worst day of his life,'" O'Brien said.
O'Brien picked up Bryant at the hospital, where Bryant is believed to have provided samples for DNA testing.
By the night of July 2, Bryant and his entourage had left Colorado. The next day, a warrant was issued to the Eagle County Sheriff's Department for Bryant's arrest on suspicion of sexual assault.
Bryant turned himself in.
On July 18, the day he was charged, Kobe and Vanessa Bryant appeared at a news conference at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
In a beige sweater and blue jeans, a worn Bryant held out a chair for his wife, sat in front of the microphone, clutched her hand above the table and told the world that he had committed adultery, thereby opening the life he had obsessively guarded.
"I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I'm innocent," he said. "I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery."
Everyone watched and wondered about the Kobe Bryant they thought they knew and whether he was capable of hurting a woman.
Harris, the former Lakers coach said, "I stand by Kobe as a young man of great strength of character. Like anyone, he is capable of a fall, but I cannot see violence in his nature on the court or in life."
Brandon Ebron said, "The Kobe I knew before, I couldn't see him doing anything like that. He wasn't aggressive."
From Philadelphia, Chubby Cox would later call his nephew.
"He's trying to be strong, to learn from this mistake [adultery], and live up to what he has done. We all make mistakes."
The last time most people saw Bryant was the day he admitted, "I'm a human being, I'm a man like everybody else. I mourn, I cry, just like everybody else."