I don't know how to feel when I'm watching Kobe Bryant put on a brilliant performance like the one he turned in Tuesday night in the Lakers' Game 4 win over the Spurs. Bryant scored 42 points, hitting shots from every imaginable angle and rendering San Antonio's superb defense helpless as the Lakers, down by 10 at the half, rallied to even the series with a 98-90 win.
Bryant even made the halftime locker-room speech. "I told the guys to remember it was just a game, to have fun," he said. "Pick up our energy, enjoy the game and we'll be there."
This was all the more remarkable, of course, because Bryant had spent most of Monday and Tuesday in a courtroom in Eagle, Colo., where he pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a charge of felony sexual assault. He flew back to Los Angeles in time to get an hour of sleep in the players lounge before the game, which started about 15 hours after his day began.
"Once again I have to title him as the best player ever," said Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal. That's the Shaquille O'Neal who believes in his big bones that Shaquille O'Neal is the all-time best. The same Shaq who refers to himself as "M.D.E.," for "Most Dominant Ever," and who has complained for years that Bryant's ball-hogging often keeps him from dominating and the team from winning. That's how amazing Bryant was.
I'm not in a mood at the moment to think too hard about whether Bryant is the best player ever, but watching him dazzle the Spurs Tuesday it certainly occurred to me that he's in that conversation. There was a baseline drive against a double-team and a reverse scoop-shot layup that I still can't believe I saw. There was, time and again, Bryant dribbling with that signature, swooping stride -- almost Groucho Marx-like -- taking him anywhere he wanted to go, never mind where the defenders were.
We've all seen great players play great games with the season on the line before, but the story here is the overcoming of adversity, and that's the rub. That adversity, not just the long day and the travel but the prospect of conviction and prison time, may be a rough stretch unfairly brought on to a man whose only "crime" was fooling around on his wife, a cruel thing to do but not deserving of hard time.
But it also may be the consequence of committing a brutal crime, of raping a 19-year-old woman, a woman who is now fighting to have her medical and sexual history kept out of court.
I have no particular rooting interest for or against the Lakers. I grew up in Los Angeles with them as my team, but we parted amicably a few years after I moved to the Bay Area to go to college. I'm fascinated by this year's dysfunctional, star-studded team and I like writing about them but I don't really care if they win or lose. Either way it's a good story.
All I want to do is sit back and marvel at the kind of game Bryant played Tuesday, revel in it, commit the best moments to memory so that 15 years from now when my kid is talking up some young'un I can say, "Well, son, let me tell you about the night Kobe Bryant hung 42 on the Spurs in the playoffs." And he can roll his eyes and tell me he knows the story by heart.
I can't do that because I don't know if I'm marveling at the exploits of a rapist, which just feels wrong to me. But it also feels wrong to think of Kobe Bryant as a rapist. I have no idea, no clue, no way of knowing if he's telling the truth that what happened last year at a Vail-area ski resort was consensual sex or if the woman is telling the truth when she says she was raped.
I'll get a pile of letters in the next 24 hours from people who are sure that Bryant's innocent and another pile from people who are just as sure he's guilty. I won't have time to respond to them all personally so if you're about to compose that e-mail, here's my reply: You have no way of knowing either. You think you know, but you don't know.
I watch Bryant split a double-team and attack the basket, watch him throw in an off-balance, desperation, shot-clock-beating three, and I get that familiar feeling, that great feeling that sports can give you that you've just witnessed something spectacular, true excellence, real drama.
But then I think of that woman, the victim or accuser, depending on whose lawyers win the terminology skirmish, slipping into the courtroom Monday to observe Bryant's pretrial hearing. I don't know if she's a victim or a perpetrator. I suppose nobody will ever know for sure except her and Bryant. But I still don't want to be a sucker. I don't ever want to find out that I'd been blithely enjoying the triumphs of a guy who thought he could get away with rape.
"I don't think any of us could imagine what he's going through and then for him to perform the way he did is amazing," teammate Derek Fisher said of Bryant after Tuesday's game. "That is a sign of greatness."
It surely is. All four times Bryant has rushed back from a day in court to join the Lakers, he's performed spectacularly and led them to a win. He is absolutely a great basketball player. What else is he?
I don't know.
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