A tale of two trials

While former Tyco fat cat Dennis Kozlowski is tormented by an assistant D.A. in an off-the-rack suit, Kobe Bryant faces his ordeal without many friends in the sports world.

Published October 16, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

I drop into Criminal Courtroom 1324 in downtown Manhattan for the opening statements of the trial of Tyco ex-chief Dennis Kozlowski. Along with his CFO, Mark Swartz, Kozlowski is the first to face a jury in the marquee corporate scandals. In the corridor on the way in I collide with the demonized defendant himself.

Kozlowski is ear-hugging his cellphone, his tumescent bald head atop his looming CEO build looking starkly unprotected as his defense team huddles in the dingy hallway. Clumps of clerks, hacks and note-takers hurry past him to take their seats inside, leaving him to stand around tensely in his Zegna suit, a ruined tower of '90s excess. "Ha!" he says in a hearty voice when I introduce myself. "Maybe you can see I'm not the monster they say I am!" Kozlowski's Big Guy bonhomie and small shrewd eyes suggest how he managed over the years to award himself around $170 million in Tyco bonuses, raises, "loans," perks and every other imaginable genre of corporate bling-bling. It must be strange for a man who had only to bark into a squawk box for a corporate legal eagle to charge in with another acquisition document for him to sign to now be waiting for a young, slight-shouldered assistant D.A. in an off-the-rack suit to make the case that will probably send him up for years.

"These two didn't win the jackpot. They stole it. They had an obligation to tell the board of directors. They didn't," says prosecutor Kenneth Chalifoux. "These defendants were the gatekeepers. They had the power to take the money. But not the authority."

The prosecutor's low-key delivery must be especially deadly for Kozlowski's amour-propre. It's one thing to be taken apart by some big-time legal showboat. It's another to have to listen to a quiet, patient, supremely effective demolition by a conscientious, friendly-eyed, salaried public employee like Chalifoux. By the time we enter the second hour of his remarks, Kozlowki's pastel-pink head has turned a deep, throbbing magenta.

I wonder what role height plays in a sense of entitlement. At its best it can give the sublime grace of the much-mourned George Plimpton, whose sunflower presence I kept searching for Tuesday night among all the other tall, patrician, white-haired men who circulated at the packed Paris Review 50th anniversary. (There were so many I wondered if it was George's last prank, providing the literary version of multiple Saddam Husseins.) George's loftiness, however, was never aloof, which seems to be the rap on Sen. John Kerry when people are looking for a reason he shouldn't or won't get the Democratic nomination.

But in the steroid-pumped age of Arnold Schwarzenegger it might be great counterprogramming for the Democrats to have a long, cool glass of water who could look down his French nose at Republican gaucheries and show off his impressive mastery of facts. Last spring, when I first saw him talk to a bunch of New York players and money guys, I thought he came off as unacceptably Olympian. But maybe that was because he chose to address that hard-nosed group from halfway up the staircase of a private club, and we had to shout our questions from below in the prayer position.

A lot has happened since then. Like desperation. In the CNN debate in Phoenix Kerry suddenly looked terrifically presidential when he came out on his stilts from behind his podium and started leaning over toward the audience, gesturing with his big bony hands. Team the elongated Kerry with Gephardt's sandy brush-fire eyebrows and proletarian back story, and the two of them might have a show they could take on the road.

There's no doubt that height is a useful weapon of effortless intimidation. Reagan used it on Carter, Bush I on Dukakis. It promises to be an increasing problem for Howard Dean in the long term. For an out-of-nowhere contender it's not a bad thing to be a feisty little spitfire, but in the last days of a vicious race there will be too many photo ops he'll have to avoid. Male or female, when Clinton flops that big blond paw down on a recalcitrant shoulder it always brings another vote around. The junior Bush, one feels, though of respectably average height, would not be so dependent on that pickup truck or landing on aircraft carriers in basket-flashing flight suits if he were three patrician inches taller, like his dad.

The size question, in more ways than one, is clearly a factor in the Kobe Bryant case. If the defense team's new panty evidence is right, he may be exonerated after all. But the dog that hasn't barked in this story is the mystery of Kobe's sex life. He's a great-looking, rich, human skyscraper of an athletic demigod in Los Angeles. He should have had a lot of sex before he tied the knot, right? So where is it? Every talk show has wheeled out a cast of undishy acquaintances from his past who say he was the perfect gentleman. The worst was the roundfaced high school sweetheart Jocelyn Ebron whom Kobe not only dumped but allowed to learn about his marriage to Vanessa by seeing it on TV. Larry King nearly had a stroke trying unsuccessfully to wring something salacious or vindictive out of Jocelyn and her memories of five years with Bryant. Given the fun that other athletes have over the backs of chairs when the game's over, it's Kobe's apparent lack of it in the past that gave the first accusations we heard an extra wallop of hidden weirdness.

Kobe has not been helped by the fact that in the sports world he has no real constituency. According to my friend Chris Connolly of ESPN, the people who liked Kobe best were media types, because he was so friendly and cooperative and eager to please. But sportswriters have daughters, too. Now they felt betrayed. Bryant wasn't popular with other players, or with his coaches all that much, or with fans in other cities -- he got booed in Philadelphia at an All-Star game. The street ballers didn't like him because he was too high-class and well-mannered, with his Italian upbringing and me-against-the-world reserve. Kobe's lack of a fervently loyal base gives him something in common with, well, Gray Davis. And we know what happened to him.

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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