If Allen Iverson is "The Answer," perhaps Kobe Bryant should have been known as "The Antidote."
Like Mr. Iverson and the other great basketball players of his generation, Bryant has the all credentials: movie-star good looks and charisma, pogo sticks for legs, and a jump shot so sweet you could serve it on strawberries. What he did not have, however, were tattoos. Or a record deal. Or a rap sheet.
To generations of fans, he was a throwback to the way basketball used to be. To suburbanites alienated from an increasingly urban sport, the soft-spoken Los Angeles Laker was someone they could relate to. He was the personable superstar with good priorities - a doting husband and a loving father.
So when a Colorado prosecutor announced Friday that he was charging Bryant with sexual assault - and Bryant admitted to adultery - it was not merely another example of a pro athlete stepping awry. It was another rip in the myth of modern sports - and the potential downfall of one of the NBA's last universal stars.
Not that Americans still cling to modern-day Joe Dimaggios. When Iverson was accused of running afoul of the law last year, there was fascination - but little surprise. Even when Ray Lewis was charged with murder after winning the Super Bowl, shock was tempered by a deep doubt about players' ethics.
Yet when a college-age hotel worker accused Bryant of raping her while he was staying in Eagle, Colo., earlier this month, the sports world stood still. The news last week that the local district attorney was pressing charges, and that Bryant admitted to a liaison - but insisted that it was consensual - only heightened the unease.
For even within the cynicism that surrounds sports today, Bryant and a handful of his peers - from Tiger Woods to Derek Jeter - have been able to present what seems an earnest and clean public image. In addition to his circus-show dunks, Bryant was known for his devotion to his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The day after she was born, he wore her hospital ID bracelet during a game.
In the NBA in particular, such behavior seemed to put Bryant in sparse company.
Just in the past month, Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings has pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury regarding gifts he received in college. Jerry Stackhouse of the Washington Wizards was charged with misdemeanor assault. Damon Stoudamire of the Portland Trail Blazers was arrested for the third time on drug charges. And the Orlando Magic's Darrell Armstrong was charged with battery of a police officer.
It's hardly a positive trend - especially when the league is fighting the perception that it is losing fans outside the inner city. "The NBA is turning itself into a niche market," says David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach, Calif. "It has gone through a pretty obvious urbanization, and it's starting to cause problems in the ratings, the sponsorship, and with the media."
"The media is not as urbanized as the league," he adds. "And Kobe bridged that gap."
In his hometown of Los Angeles, where public images are made over with every new moon and cynicism runs deeper than the San Andreas Fault, Bryant's image until now has been irreproachable. Moreover, few professional athletes are more universally well liked by the media than is Bryant.
It is a public image founded on a background that seems so different from many of today's professional basketball players. The son of a professional basketball player, Bryant grew up in Italy and then in the relative affluence of suburban Philadelphia. He speaks Italian and scored a 1080 on his SATs.
Yet now he finds himself in a position familiar to that of other pro athletes: defending himself against legal charges. At a news conference Friday, Bryant struggled to explain that he makes mistakes and "is just like everybody else."
Maybe now more people will listen, says Roger Abrams, a professor at Northeastern University Law School in Boston who specializes in sports law. "This will make us wonder why we think that people who are in sports are any different from anyone who does anything."