From the moment he joined the NBA as a baby-faced teen, flirtatious women hit on Kobe Bryant in hotel lobbies and shopping malls.
"Sure, the groupies come after you," Bryant said during his rookie season in 1996-1997, when he was one of the youngest players in the league.
"Living in LA, how could you not be approached by women like that? They tend to be older, but some are younger. You have to handle it in a professional manner. There are those women who want to go out with every player, and you've got to worry about disease, about having someone say they're having your baby. I've learned all about that growing up."
Bryant, raised in Italy as the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, tuned out the world with headphones, checked into hotels under aliases and cultivated a sparkling image, free of even the scent of scandal. He was effervescent, blessed with good looks, wealth and talent -- a winner on the court and in life.
When he became engaged to an 18-year-old high school student, Vanessa Laine, three years ago, his parents objected to his marrying so young and did not attend the wedding in 2001. But the birth of Natalia Bryant in January brought the family back together.
Now a felony charge filed Friday alleging that Bryant, 24, sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman in Colorado threatens to send him to prison and link him with the likes of boxer Mike Tyson, who was convicted for rape.
Blinking back tears at a news conference in Los Angeles, Bryant denied the charge.
"I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I'm innocent," he said, his wife at his side. "I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery."
He spoke of how he loves his wife, how she's his "backbone," telling her, "You're a blessing, you're the air I breathe. You're the strongest person I know and I'm so sorry for having to put you through this, and having to put our family through this."
"Image consultants" and various other spin doctors have been opining the past week about how Bryant's commercial value will be affected by this case, as if that were the crux of the matter. The money Bryant could lose is merely a petty side issue.
This is a story that looms both larger and smaller, challenging anew the way the public views its heroes. It is a reminder once more that behind their smiles and skills, they are as imperfect as the rest of us -- even a president of the United States.
The issue is whether the woman is telling the truth, whether she was indeed sexually assaulted at a resort in Colorado and subjected to physical, mental or emotional pain. All of Bryant's dramatic denials and proclamations of love toward his wife, all the good will he built up and the titles he won, would not diminish the magnitude of such a crime. Her suffering, not his, should be paramount.
Yet there is no shortage of skeptics, people who have seen Bryant grow into a polished, worldly man with a sweet disposition, and refuse to believe he would assault anyone.
There are suspicions that money is the alleged victim's motivation, that a civil suit isn't far behind.
If Bryant is telling the truth, he would hardly be the first NBA player to be embroiled in what would amount to an embarrassing affair.
Just last month, a judge in Chicago threw out a lawsuit against Michael Jordan, ruling he did not have to pay a woman who wanted $5 million to keep their relationship quiet. Magic Johnson acknowledged numerous sexual liaisons that he said led to him getting the AIDS virus. Julius "Dr. J" Erving admitted a few years ago he had fathered tennis player Alexandra Stevenson with a woman sports writer.
NBA players have been notorious for fathering children out of wedlock. But there is a huge difference between a sexual escapade and sexual assault.
In Bryant's case, that may be for a jury to decide and it would be no easy task.