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Don Rogers: Kobe’s shot at atonement

Don Rogers

I like to think Kobe Bryant grew up.

Never liked him as a basketball player. Wanted my blood team, the Lakers, to keep Shaq and let him go when there was a choice. Thought he could have been a great all-around player, like Scottie Pippen before him and LeBron James after. Instead he chased the ghost of Michael Jordan and became just another gunner. Talented sure, but still just a gunner.

His notorious will didn’t make him a champion, what a silly myth. No, his stubbornness, his selfishness, his feuds cost him several more than the five he did win. How many might he have won with Shaquille O’Neal? Maybe with Dwight Howard? Or other stars who gave him and the Lakers a wide berth?

Bryant could have approached another legend’s count of championships: Bill Russell, the epitome of the team player, who won 11.

The most selfish and stubborn of stars changed course as a person.

This notion of challenging everyone, pushing buttons, being uncompromising, uncoachable, his lack of faith in teammates — this whole mamba mentality — did more harm than good.

Off the court, he cost me a lot of weekends and midnights supervising coverage of his darkest days as a human. We never met, but I learned a good deal from the experience in 2003-04. Our lead reporter lived in the same Vail Valley, Colorado, neighborhood as key players in this drama and had direct sources in the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office.

The L.A. Times pictured Mayberry. Others made up tumbleweeds for one of the wealthier communities in the land. The New York Times went to the wrong town entirely. Reporters tried to interview my kids, who were about as far removed as could be.

The National Enquirer wasn’t the only organization to forego tenets like primary sourcing, more than one source, confirmation of rather wild stories. We took to running a “True/BS” column in our paper to separate false from accurate reporting by our betters, their satellite trucks impressive but of little use outside of court appearances.

Sure, we could afford to be more than a little righteously smug there for awhile. We had the direct sources, the moles in the law enforcement system, the lottery’s luck in local knowledge down to the victim’s neighborhood. Everyone had to follow us or risk second-hand sources and rumor to try to keep up. I was surprised at how many went low.

The big leaguers took the story back once it hit court. We were competent enough, but not nearly so practiced.

I haven’t looked back through retrospective coverage in the wake of the helicopter crash. I remember Bryant in those days had a rep among NBA insiders that made the accusation less surprising. I remember the case wasn’t nearly so strong as prosecutors tried to portray, and the victim’s big break came when a noted civil attorney took over, almost immediately got her out of the criminal proceedings, and settled the subsequent lawsuit in her favor.

Only in this way did a semblance of justice get done, I thought however cynically and still do today. Bryant’s case went right there to everything involved with accusations of sexual assault, every societal stereotype, the whole sordid range of humanity, the most delicate of questions about state of mind and change of heart. That dearth of witnesses distilling what actually happened to “he said, she said.”

I haven’t seen a whole lot of progress since then.

But I do see that something changed in Bryant. I believe the on-the-road extracurriculars stopped, probably cold. He stayed married. He and his wife, Vanessa, went on to have four daughters.

Oh, he remained the same player on the court, that gunner, self-absorbed as ever. He never made his teammates better in that magical way Ervin Johnson managed in a different era and LeBron James does now, even while passing Bryant as the third all-time scorer in NBA history, an irony.

Bryant’s devotion to his daughters and to women’s basketball shined through strong in recent years, though. Here finally was something bigger, more important than himself. Even I, someone who couldn’t quite stand the guy, saw this plainly and warmed to it.

I saw it in camera shots on the basketball court of stolen glances at his wife and daughters. Sitting courtside with Gianna, the one who most ached to know the game like her father, who died in the same crash on the way to one of her games, for me the most heart-breaking part of this tragedy.

And not just his daughters. He had taken a big interest in women’s basketball and knew female athletes well enough at all levels they cried openly for him everywhere. A number spoke about how he had helped them personally.

This was not the behavior of the unrepentant. Something sank in from being caught at his worst. It happens. Not often, but enough to know it can. The most selfish and stubborn of stars changed course as a person.

Finally, I found a Kobe I could respect, admire, even like. The one who was just a father, like me, who wanted to do everything to help his daughter pursue her dreams.

The Kobe who grew up and had begun to atone.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299.


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