Kobe image may have outgrown Shaq

Thursday, October 30, 2003

This wouldn't seem to be the best time for Kobe Bryant to be fighting with anyone. Especially because he has a much bigger fight on his hands already.

Two weeks from now Bryant will stand before a judge in Colorado, who will tell him in no uncertain terms that he could go to prison for the rest of his life if convicted of raping a teenage hotel worker.

So why are he and Shaq going at it again in a nasty catfight as the Lakers open a season that once held such promise?

It could be Bryant was simply tired of Shaq taking potshots at him and felt he needed to strike back. It might be because he thinks feuding with the big guy will raise such a ruckus that the messiness over the rape allegation will fade a bit.

Or maybe, just maybe, Bryant already believes he has that fight won.

It's easy to see why, and for reasons that have little to do with the thin case prosecutors showed off earlier this month in Colorado.

Getting 12 jurors to convict him in a "he said, she said" kind of case was always going to be tough. But there are indications Bryant already might be ahead in the court of public opinion.

Bryant was an NBA superstar before he was charged with sexual assault. Today, he's even bigger, a true American celebrity whose image is beamed across the country as his soap opera-like saga plays out.

He's bigger than Shaq, larger than life.

In Las Vegas, fans scrambled up a chain-link fence to get a glimpse of Bryant as he got off the team bus before the Lakers' final exhibition game. They chanted his name when he took the court, microphone in hand, to tell them he loved them.

One held up a sign that likely has never before been seen at an NBA game: "Her Underwear Tells The Story. Kobe Is Innocent."

A celebrity-adoring nation

America loves its celebrities, no matter what they are accused of doing. And these days, it seems, everyone loves Kobe Bryant.

Everyone, it seems, except O'Neal, who probably wasn't too happy to hear Bryant say Shaq came into camp last year "fat and out of shape."

And the young woman and her family in Colorado, of course.

The legal details are pesky, but Bryant's fans don't need to wait for any trial to render their verdict.

"To people who are just interested in celebrity, they think it's the greatest achievement in their life to be near celebrities or think they know them," said Richard Lachmann, a University of Albany sociology professor who studies popular culture. "To a large degree the interest in celebrity is in how famous people are, not in what they do."

Bryant might be the perfect example. For months now, his name and image have been splashed across television and newspapers for reasons that have nothing to do with how he can glide down the baseline and score on a reverse dunk.

"Celebrity creates aura. Whenever you get that much national attention and your face gets beamed into millions of homes, it lends a sense of other worldliness, an aristocracy of celebrity to the person," said Robert Thompson, a television and popular culture professor at Syracuse.

"And that is something we respond to very much in this country."

Not everyone, of course, is infatuated with Bryant. Women's groups are wringing their hands at the treatment both he and his accuser are getting, and there are likely millions of Americans who think he's arrogant and crude at best and a calculating rapist at worst.

But those people have been largely quiet, waiting for the script to play out. Not so for the fans who stand by Bryant's side and want to let him know -- loudly at times -- how they feel.

Bryant's well-paid attorneys have already succeeded in framing his accuser as a starstruck woman who slept around long before Bryant ever got to town. That seems to be good enough for those buying tickets to Lakers games.

"Lots of his fans have a view either he didn't do it or he did it or the woman in some way was asking for it," Lachmann said. "With rape you can say she was a publicity hound and to a good part of the population, that's the end of it."

No wonder that every time he shows his face in public Bryant seems to gain confidence in his future. Just a few weeks ago in Hawaii, he talked solemnly about how scared he was and how difficult every day was for him.

Now he's secure enough to blast not only Shaq's work ethic but his "childlike selfishness and jealousy," and threaten to leave the Lakers when his contract runs out at the end of the season.

It could be just the competitive juices of a big-time player getting ready for a long season that prompted Bryant's outburst.

But he might just be seeing what's going on around him, and might just believe he's already a winner.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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