Kobe Bryant, who died way too soon Sunday with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a horrific helicopter crash in Los Angeles, will be remembered very differently in the Vail Valley than the rest of the nation.
Bryant, 41, was a five-time National Basketball Association champion and transcendent star for the Los Angeles Lakers who retired in 2016 as the third-highest scorer in NBA history. On Saturday he was in attendance in Philadelphia when he was surpassed on that list by LeBron James.
Bryant’s all-time basketball greatness will never be questioned, including the second highest-scoring single game in league history (81 points in 2006).
But in 2003 at the Lodge and Spa in Cordillera near Edwards, Colorado (about 15 miles west of Vail), Bryant – who was staying there for knee surgery at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail — made a terrible decision that led to his arrest on charges of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Eagle woman who worked at the hotel.
That woman never testified against Bryant in the criminal case, which was subsequently dropped, but Bryant apologized to her as part of her civil suit settlement. He said he thought their sex was consensual but was sorry if she thought it was not.
During an interview with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, Bryant threw his teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, under the bus by discussing the star center’s alleged extramarital affairs and cash payoffs to partners to keep them quiet – an allegation O’Neal rejected.
As a longtime local journalist, the Bryant case landed me on ESPN and in The New York Times for the first time. It also cost local taxpayers nearly a quarter million dollars for what was billed at the “Pretrial of the Century.”
I blasted Bryant for his lack of judgment and overall philandering ways (if not something worse) six years after the incident when his Lakers returned to take on the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, and more recently questioned his Oscar win during the #MeToo Academy Awards.
The accolades for Bryant have already started pouring out – and in many ways rightfully so as he seemed to learn from his mistake, rehabilitated his reputation and was a devoted husband and father. But in the Vail Valley, there will always be the bitter memories of the summer of 2003.
It was a time of brutal recriminations that exposed the racial divide in an otherwise peaceful resort valley, and it brought all the wrong kinds of publicity.
Perhaps the late Vail founder Dick Hauserman said it best in a New York Times story in which I was also quoted:
“This has cast a pall over the valley,” he said. “It’s such an unfortunate experience.”