LA love story: highs and lows of Kobe Bryant’s marriage
IT WAS an LA love story that spanned two decades and included some incredible triumphs - but also some of life's toughest tests.
Before Kobe Bryant's tragic death in a helicopter crash on Monday, he and wife Vanessa stood by each other through a legendary basketball career that included five NBA championships but also the early opposition of his parents to their union, as well as infidelity, a sexual assault case and a near-divorce.
Ironically, their roller-coaster began with a first date at Disneyland.
Bryant was already a bona fide star by the time he first spotted the gorgeous 17-year-old Latino, who had been enlisted to appear as an extra in a music video for the Snoop Dogg-led rap group Tha Eastsidaz.
Koby had completed a remarkable high school career in Philadelphia, not only performing well enough on the basketball court to make an immediate jump to professional ranks, but also to become enough of a celebrity to take teen star Brandy to his prom.
THE BEGINNING: BRYANT'S HIGHSCHOOL SWEETHEART
Vanessa couldn't match the star power of someone like Brandy, but she instantly captured the heart of Bryant, who was coming off a breakout season with the Lakers that had led to a six-year, $70 million contract and an attempt to launch a side career as a rapper.
Bryant, 20, began sending roses to Vanessa at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, leading to widespread gossip and even TV crews descending on the campus.
At first Vanessa's own friends struggled to believe she'd won the heart of LA's most eligible bachelor, but when she turned 18 and Bryant announced his engagement to a woman he declined to identify, the focus became so heavy his fiancee was forced to complete her studies independently.
They were married in April, 2001, without the approval - or attendance at their wedding - of Bryant's parents, Joe and Pam.
Joe, a former NBA player himself, would only say "it's his life now", but it was reported the animosity stemmed from how young the couple were and because Vanessa wasn't African-American.
It led to a period of estrangement that lasted years.
The early days of the sweethearts' marriage were filled with on-court success and social appearances as Vanessa adeptly played the role of NBA wife.
Bryant won a three-peat of championships with the Lakers from 2000-02 but after they welcomed their first daughter, Natalia, in 2003 - an arrival that helped secure a reconciliation with Bryant's parents - their relationship turned toward rocky times.
THE TRIALS: BRYANT'S SEXUAL ASSAULT CASE
A few months after Natalia was born, Bryant was arrested after a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado accused him of sexual assault.
Bryant denied the allegations but did admit to having a sexual encounter and cheating on Vanessa. His public image was significantly tarnished.
The case was dropped the following year when the accuser decided not to testify at trial and instead to pursue a civil settlement.
Bryant publicly apologised to her.
"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," he said. "After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her lawyer, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
Gossip rags ran wild when Vanessa was spotted wearing a $4 million diamond ring through the ordeal.
"I know that my husband has made a mistake - the mistake of adultery," she said in a statement at the time.
"He and I will have to deal with that within our marriage, and we will do so. He is not a criminal."
FURTHER TESTS: A MISCARRIAGE AND NEAR-DIVORCE
Bryant openly worried if the stress of his sexual assault case had contributed to the loss of the couple's second child through miscarriage in 2005.
"The reality is it happened because of me," he said later. "That's something I have to deal with."
But it wasn't long before their clan expanded again. Vanessa gave birth to Gianna - the daughter who would die alongside her father - in May 2006.
Bryant continued to build his legacy in the NBA, adding his fourth and fifth championships in 2009 and 2010, but away from the arena his relationship was falling apart.
Rumours of further infidelity led to Vanessa filing for divorce in 2011.
"She's been dealing with these incidents for a long time and has been a faithful wife, but she's finally had enough," a source told TMZ. "This one is the straw that broke the camel's back."
But 13 months later the proceedings were halted.
"We are pleased to announce that we have reconciled," Vanessa Bryant said on social media at the time. "Our divorce action will be dismissed. We are looking forward to our future together."
The reconciliation proved a godsend for Kobe, who suffered a catastrophic Achilles injury in 2013 and thought about giving away the game.
"To be completely honest I had a moment where I didn't want to play," Bryant told ESPN in 2015.
"Vanessa - who is every bit as competitive as I am - said 'No, you're going to play. This is what you do. You're going to go out there and you're going to play well - and you're going to dominate'. And that's what I did. Me having that support at home is what really propelled me."
The pair were also blessed with two more girls - Bianka in 2016 and Capri last year.
Just weeks before he died, Bryant listed he and his wife's "competitiveness" and desire to "succeed" as the keys to their marriage lasting 20 years.
"That's all the beauty of it: having the persistence and determination to work through things - very, very tough things - and we've been able to do that," he said.
THE END: VANESSA LEFT INCONSOLABLE
Vanessa has been left to pick up the pieces and is understandably "devastated" but doing everything she can to hold it together for her three remaining children.
"She can hardly keep it together," a family insider told PEOPLE magazine. "She can't finish a sentence without crying. But she is working very hard to pull it together for the other girls. She now has to be the strong one.
"Of course, you can never be prepared for this. Despite their ups and downs, (Vanessa and Kobe) were soulmates. She thought of him as her partner for life."
Vanessa's first public acknowledgment of the tragedy came three days later when she changed the profile picture on her Instagram account to a heartbreaking image of Kobe and Gianna staring lovingly into each other's eyes at an NBA All-Star game.
She later posted a message about Kobe and Gianna:
View this post on Instagram
My girls and I want to thank the millions of people who’ve shown support and love during this horrific time. Thank you for all the prayers. We definitely need them. We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe — the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna — a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri. We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately. There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon. I’m not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it’s impossible to imagine life without them. But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way. Our love for them is endless — and that’s to say, immeasurable. I just wish I could hug them, kiss them and bless them. Have them here with us, forever. Thank you for sharing your joy, your grief and your support with us. We ask that you grant us the respect and privacy we will need to navigate this new reality. To honor our Team Mamba family, the Mamba Sports Foundation has set up the MambaOnThree Fund to help support the other families affected by this tragedy. To donate, please go to MambaOnThree.org. To further Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports, please visit MambaSportsFoundation.org. Thank you so much for lifting us up in your prayers, and for loving Kobe, Gigi, Natalia, Bianka, Capri and me. #Mamba #Mambacita #GirlsDad #DaddysGirls #Family ❤️
"We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe - the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna - a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri.
"There aren't enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.
"I'm not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it's impossible to imagine life without them. But we wake up each day, trying to keep pushing because Kobe, and our baby girl, Gigi, are shining on us to light the way. Our love for them is endless - and that's to say, immeasurable. I just wish I could hug them, kiss them and bless them. Have them here with us, forever."
KOBE AND VANESSA: THROUGH THE YEARS
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