opinion

The forgotten woman: The night in Kobe Bryant's story we've become too scared to talk about.

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault, and may be distressing for some readers. If you need support, please call the sexual assault helpline on 1800 010 120.

When Kobe Bryant died on Sunday, he was sitting in a helicopter with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Also in the aircraft were two other 13-year-old girls, one with both her parents, one with her mum. As a father to four daughters, and a husband to his wife Vanessa, the 41-year-old lived the last years of his life surrounded by women. In those years, he was a champion for young women – particularly women in basketball.

Writing for the New York Times on Monday, WNBA player Talia Caldwell said that while Bryant was criticised his whole career for not passing the ball enough, he ended it by passing the ball to women. He was a proud fan of women’s basketball, mentioning names and games and teams to millions of his followers. Just one week before his death, in an interview with CNN, Bryant named three female players who “could play in the NBA right now, honestly.” This attitude, from an athlete who had earned the respect of basketball’s most conservative fanatics.

More broadly, his approach to the game, and to life – which he called a ‘Mamba mentality’ – transcended the world of sport. It became impossible not to respect Bryant’s work ethic and unrivalled competitiveness, which saw him showing up for training hours early, before any other player, and approaching an injury to his right shoulder by simply playing with his left hand. He once said he was born talented but worked as if he had no talent, and while that philosophy had become expected from him on the court, Bryant continued to take that mentality everywhere he went. As a coach, he had that same drive, that same unquenchable thirst for greatness. Just as he demanded the best from himself, he would go on to demand the best from those around him.

Like his love for basketball and his relentless commitment to hard work, Kobe Bryant’s passion for his daughters was contagious. Sometimes, fans would say they wanted him to have a boy, to carry on his legacy, even when his daughters were by his side. Joking with Jimmy Kimmel in 2018, Bryant said his daughter, Gigi, had the best response to those fans: “She’s like, ‘I got this’,” he said. Before the birth of his fourth daughter, Bryant told ESPN, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”

Watch: Kobe Bryant on raising four daughters. Post continues after video.

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As one of the most prolific point scorers in the history of the game, Bryant could’ve had just about any role he wanted after retiring from basketball in 2016. He chose to coach young women, like Gianna, effortlessly showing how style and discipline and technical skill crosses the boundaries of gender and age. That he died in an act of parenting – taking his daughter to her basketball game – and alongside his daughter, whose hopes and dreams of athletic greatness were well-documented, makes the events of last Sunday feel all the more tragic.

But while many people saw the Kobe who dribbled and ran and trained with young women, whose work ethic and passion was pure and uncomplicated, there’s one woman who allegedly saw a very different side.

One woman who, on Sunday, might have been sitting at home, or concentrating on work, or raising a family. She might have been scrolling through her phone. And over a number of hours, then days, she would’ve seen everyone from current and former presidents of the United States, talk show hosts, musicians, actors, sporting legends, then friends and family and Uber drivers and restaurant waiters, say what an incredible person Kobe Bryant was.

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For her, that incredible person was the person she says raped her.

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Is it possible for us to reconcile that a man like Bryant can be a generational icon, a trailblazer for women in basketball, a devoted father, and also someone who did a horrible, brutal thing to a 19-year-old woman? It’s the question the world has been asking – in whispered conversations and in heated WhatsApp groups and Facebook messages – for days. And it’s a question where feelings seem to be at odds with our core beliefs.

Too soon, some say.

It’s too soon.

The man’s body has only just been recovered from the site where he died. He died taking his daughter to a basketball game. His wife and his three other daughters are mourning. His fans are grieving. Respect the dead. He redeemed himself.

‘What do you even know about the case?’ they ask. ‘What do you even know about this woman?’ Now isn’t the time. There’s a Washington Post journalist who tweeted about the rape allegations the day he died, and she was placed on administrative leave. Quietly, later in the week, she was reinstated.

There’s valid feelings about what is and isn’t appropriate after a shocking, tragic death. Then, of course, there’s the truth.

On the afternoon of June 30, 2003, a 19-year-old hotel employee arrived late to work at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, Colorado. She alleges that some time after 10.30pm that night, she was raped by a then 24-year-old Kobe Bryant.

This is the account she told police the following day, according to the Daily Beast:

She arrives at work at 2pm, late for her shift. At 4pm, she receives a phone call checking in Kobe Bryant. She’s meant to finish work at the hotel at 7pm, but wants to make up for her lateness, so stays back. Just before 10pm, Kobe Bryant arrives, and she’s excited to meet him. She escorts him to his room with two companions, and he asks her to come back in 15 minutes and give him a tour of the hotel.

She returns and shows him the lodge’s facilities – the pool, the gym, the spa – and they return to Bryant’s room. Here, they sit and talk, and she says she’s finished work and is going to go home. When she stands up to leave, he hugs her, and then starts kissing her. She lets him kiss her, and they kiss for five minutes. When he starts taking off his pants, she tries to leave.

In her words, “that’s when he started to choke me”.

He starts groping her, and she says she needs to leave. He gets rough with her, choking her. She tries to back away, and moves towards the door.

He holds her by her neck and ‘forces’ her over to the side of the lounge. He has one hand around her neck and uses the other to bend her over and lift up her skirt. She says no twice.

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Police will ask her how she knew he had heard her. She will say she knows, because when she said no, his grip got tighter.

He whispers, ‘you’re not gonna tell anybody, right?’ She says no and he tells her to say it louder. He ejaculates inside her. She’s crying.

She’ll tell police the penetration lasted for five minutes, and that afterwards Bryant told her she wasn’t going to tell anybody. She’ll recall that he forced her to stay in the room until she had calmed down, making her fix her hair and wash her face.

It’s not until 11.30pm the night after the alleged attack that police speak to Bryant. He denies three times that anything sexual happened with the hotel employee. When police tell him his accuser has taken a physical exam, and they’re testing semen found inside her, he admits to ‘totally consensual’ intercourse.

Officers ask Bryant whether the 19-year-old resisted, and he responds: “OK. I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking. (Pause.) I’m trying to think of the conversation we had.”

Told that his accuser has a bruise on her neck, Bryant explains that when he has sex with Michelle (a ‘frequent’ sexual partner of his), “we do the same thing”.

Less than three weeks later, Bryant was charged with sexual assault. He publicly proclaimed his innocence.

Listen: A complicated legacy. Who was Kobe Bryant? Post continues after audio.

The detective involved in the case testified in court that according to a nurse who examined the accuser the day after the alleged assault, “there were several lacerations to the victim’s posterior fourchette or vaginal area, and two of those lacerations were approximately one centimetre in length”.

“And there were many, I believe, 2 millimetre lacerations. Too many to count.” The detective testified that the nurse had stated “the injuries were consistent with penetrating genital trauma. That it’s not consistent with consensual sex.”

The accuser also, according to the detective, had a bruise on her jaw, and blood belonging to the accuser was found on Bryant’s t-shirt.

Bryant’s legal team brought up his alleged victim’s sexual history, and suggested her genital trauma could have been due to her having had multiple partners in a short period of time. Her identity was leaked to the press, and her mental state was called into question. In 2004, after having received death threats, she dropped the case for the sole reason that she was “unable to continue”.

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After the case, Bryant released a statement.

“First, I want to apologise directly to the young woman involved in this incident,” the statement read. “I want to apologise to her for my behaviour that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure.

“I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognise now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

In 2005, a civil case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

In analyses of Kobe Bryant’s life, many have implied that he spent the years after 2003 trying to make up for what he did on that night in June, to a 19-year-old woman. Other interpretations are less generous, suggesting he believed he was wrongly accused, and worked to mend his public image after a ‘scandal’ that could’ve destroyed his career (had Bryant been convicted, he was facing life in prison).

The fact is, we don’t know, and we’ll likely never know, how Bryant came to understand his rape accusation.

What is almost certain is that there’s a silent woman for whom the death of the 41-year-old means something very different to what it does for the rest of the world. And to imagine she doesn’t exist, and that her story isn’t a valid part of Kobe Bryant’s narrative, is entirely at odds with what we proclaim to value in a post #metoo context.

Women’s suffering matters. Believing their stories matters. And acknowledging that the men who hurt them aren’t impenetrable heroes matters, too.

Bryant wasn’t a God. He was a flesh and blood human being, and to represent him as anything other than that, is to do him, and those who knew him, an enormous disservice.

Fitting Bryant’s rape allegation into his story, and leaving it there for people to sit with, simply says: so many truths can exist at once. 

The alternative means forgiving him, when that forgiveness isn’t ours to give.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

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