Nuggets fans welcome Bryant with boos

Lakers star makes 1st trip to Colorado as a player since sex assault charge

January 08, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

DENVER - As Kobe Bryant stepped to the free-throw line late in the first quarter last night, the Pepsi Center crowd turned its fury on him with a chorus of boos.

But the Denver Nuggets fans had to be prompted by the giant scoreboard to "make some noise," hardly what would have been expected given the circumstances.

It was the All-Star guard's first game in Colorado since Bryant was charged last summer with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee at a resort west of Vail.

Bryant was booed lustily from the time he was introduced in the Los Angeles starting lineup, to his first shot attempt - six seconds into the game - and with every subsequent touch of the ball.

But there also was a distinct cache of Bryant supporters, from the youngest of fans to middle-aged men, many wearing replica No. 8 jerseys in various colors.

Last night's game seemed to follow a pattern in which Bryant, who is among the Western Conference leaders in voting for next month's All-Star Game, has been mildly booed or warmly received.

And his play, for the most part, has not reflected any sort of turmoil, as Bryant entered the game averaging 22.1 points, ninth best in the league, just slightly ahead of his career average of 21.5, but down from last year's 30.0 average.

Bryant wound up leading the Lakers with 27 points last night, but Los Angeles dropped its fourth straight game, 113-91.

"He's found a way to channel his energy and focus on basketball, but it is a lot of distraction and it's something that he has to deal with," Denver point guard Andre Miller said before the game. "Hopefully, it will turn out for the better, but we're the Nuggets and we have to take advantage of the situation and get a win and move on to the next game."

All hands were on alert for the possibility of some kind of protest against Bryant, who was charged in Eagle County with assaulting the hotel employee during a June 30 visit to the area to have his ailing knee examined.

Extra security was added around the Pepsi Center, in part because of the raising of the national threat warning to orange last month but also because of the presence of Bryant, who has received death threats in the state since he was charged.

The Lakers passed up the usual game day shoot-around yesterday morning, as Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said the team didn't want to give people "free shots on Kobe."

But, Bryant's return to the basketball court - he has made two court appearances for hearings with a third scheduled Jan. 23 - hardly created a ripple, either on television or on talk radio yesterday.

"It [a protest] hasn't crossed my mind," Jackson said before the game. "... This game is a media event more than it is anything, although it is a sold-out ticket and people are anxious to see what is going to happen on the court."

But when Cynthia Stone, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for Sexual Assault, announced that her group would not protest Bryant's appearance, it seemed to defuse whatever anger might have been present.

"This is about a court case, not about a basketball game," Stone told the Rocky Mountain News. To protest, Stone said, "just sensationalizes his case more, which we do not want to do. We want to see a system and a process that works, and is fair and balanced for the alleged victim and the defendant."

Bryant provided an on-court curiosity factor when he guaranteed a Lakers win last night. In the first game between the two, a Dec. 19 Los Angeles 101-99 win at Staples Center, Bryant, who arrived late because of a court appearance, hit the game-winning basket at the buzzer.

The Lakers had dropped their past three games. The are undermanned, with center Shaquille O'Neal out with a strained right calf and Karl Malone on the injured list with a knee ailment.

"Whether he made them [guarantee comments] or not, we knew how capable he is, not just against us, but against anybody," Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "He's just an unbelievable talent that we respect greatly. Whether he made those comments or not, we knew that he would come in here and try and have a big game, not only because he's here in Colorado, but because they need a win, just like we need a win."

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