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THE NBA'S "OTHER" NEWS The 2003-04 NBA season is winding toward its usual spirited finish. Championship hopes are high everywhere from L.A. to Indianapolis, from Sacramento to Detroit. Minnesota’s all-universe forward, Kevin Garnett, appears in position for his first of several MVP awards. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, not to mention Miami’s oft-overlooked Dwyane Wade, have energized the league with new blood, just as old standards (read: David Robinson, Michael Jordan, John Stockton) fade into the sunset. But way back, behind the curtain, the bright-and-lively show that is NBA basketball has suffered a pair of ugly sideshows this season, tales where the word “court” takes on the kind of meaning that leaves dunking and dribbling in their rightful, somewhat meaningless, place. The trials of Laker star Kobe Bryant (for sexual assault) and former Net star Jayson Williams (for manslaughter) have served as a west coast/east coast psychodrama of sorts. Extraordinarily famous and wealthy young men on trial for extraordinarily weak and, yes, vicious transgressions. Innocent until proven guilty, both Bryant and Williams deserve every bit of margin the U.S. court system can provide them. But the predicaments in which they find themselves tell us a lot about the pampered culture in which we have asked young athletes to live and, more importantly, to behave. Both cases are as much about setting and decision-making as they are about the respective personalities on trial. Williams is accused of having blasted a fatal hole in the chest of a hired chauffeur. The incident took place in the wee hours of revelry, at Williams’ New Jersey mansion, after a night out at, of all things, a Harlem Globetrotters game. Most disturbing, Williams also faces accusations of obstructing justice, having allegedly plotted to leave his victim’s fingerprints on the shotgun fired, claiming the incident was actually a suicide. As for Bryant, the All-NBA guard was in Colorado after the 2002-03 season for knee surgery. Housed in a lavish resort prior to his operation, Bryant wound up in a room with a 19-year-old resort employee, who claims the married Bryant lured her there and raped her. Immediately after the accusation was made public last summer, Bryant publicly confessed -- with his wife at his side -- to having had sex with his accuser, but insists the act was consensual. Makes all the marijuana found in possession of various Portland Trail Blazers of late seem like silly putty. These cases further magnify just how ill prepared for, well, the high life, pro athletes tend to be today. Williams and Bryant, by all measures, were moral exemplars for aspiring NBA players. Both articulate, bright-eyed, and energetic players, Williams and Bryant defied any racial or socio-economic stereotypes. After he retired prematurely because of a leg injury, Williams was a studio analyst for NBC. Bryant became a pitch man for kid-friendly brands like McDonald’s and Sprite. The kind of players you want to see in poster form on your child’s wall. The kind of men with whom you wouldn’t mind seeing your daughter. Yikes . . . that was then. Where each of these stars failed was in a most basic element, one any parent aims to solidify in his/her child’s upbringing: decision-making. Williams chose to own and keep firearms in his house. Okay. But loaded? And accessible? Williams apparently chose to display one more layer to his larger-than-life (at least in the eyes of his posse) persona. Whether inebriated or not, Williams turned what was probably little more than a playful “Look at what I have!” moment into violent, innocent death. And Bryant? If innocent of rape, he’s guilty of the same crime Magic Johnson was, and so many of his NBA brethren who choose to keep certain trophies away from the camera’s eye. A young woman was accessible -- that word again -- and Bryant made the most of an opportunity. Marital loyalties be damned. There are far more decent people in the NBA than bad. Same goes for the rest of the professional sports world. But there are lessons to be learned yet. If we keep placing the pedestal so very high, where our heroes develop a sense that they can’t be touched, can’t be harmed -- can’t be caught -- then we leave them that much further to fall when human frailty rears its ugly head. We have to demand more of our athletic icons. If the decisions made by Jayson Williams and Kobe Bryant can serve as lessons for their followers, perhaps these two fallen stars will have a legacy after all.

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