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  KOBE? OR NOT KOBE? THAT IS THE QUESTION.  
   
   
 

In 1996, NBA star Kobe Bryant graduated from Lower Merion High School. So did my friend Jeff. I graduated that same June from Radnor High School, just down the road a bit from what we snottily called Slower Merion. Jeff shared a love of music with my group of friends, and we all hung out together. Not once do I remember ever discussing sports, except perhaps to mock the jocks who played them. All we knew was that there was a champion coming out of the Main Line who wasn't us.

(Oh, and don't believe the Kobe hype. He is marketed as having sprung straight from the streets of Philly, but that's a load of crap.

 
 

The part of Pennsylvania that Jeff and Kobe and I grew up in is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country. Its public schools, which we attended, are some of the finest in the Northeast.)

A couple weeks ago, tabloid headlines blared with the news of Bryant's arrest and subsequent sexual assault charges were filed against him in Colorado. Almost as soon as Bryant turned himself in, there was a Web site reminding us that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, even celebrity basketball players known to have exemplary behavior. This site,

 
 

FreeKobe.com got hundreds of thousands of hits in a matter of days. Two guys started FreeKobe.com; one of them was my friend Jeff.

Jeff separated himself from FreeKobe.com on July 13, a week after the site launched. He requested that The Black Table not use his last name. Considering Jeff is a pleasant literature doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California who would prefer to be known for other accomplishments besides this one, The Black Table obliged.

BT: In high school we made up alternative lyrics to Green Day songs to reflect our scorn for jocks. And from what I recall, you knew Kobe only slightly better than I did, which isn't saying much. In short, since when do you give a crap about Kobe Bryant?

Jeff: I wasn't much of fan in high school beyond the average hoopla, and I can't say that I've changed since then. Though it may sound silly, we didn't really start FreeKobe.com to have people rally around him like the pied piper. We just seem to attract that contingent of Web surfers.

BT: So what was Kobe like in high school? The only thing I remember about him is making a beautiful dunk in the Radnor High School gym after being taunted with "overrated" for an entire game. That shut everyone up.

Jeff: I think Kobe and I had a few mutual acquaintances, but I didn't know him. I might have talked to him once or twice, but I don't really remember. I can't bring anything new to the table about Kobe: The High School Years.

BT: Was he just another kid or was he "Holy shit, that guy's going to the NBA while I'll be sitting through freshman comp?"

Jeff: I know that I am still a little amazed at his fame. I think that's the general climate of [Lower Merion High School] grads who went through with him. Kobe is not just another kid, for certain. And I don't really know, but I've heard he's a pretty nice guy.

BT: But he wasn't that famous when we were 16, was he?

Jeff: No, but everyone knew he was going somewhere. Still, his superstardom is surprising. [It's hard to believe] he's that good.

BT: Is Freekobe.com a drunken idea that worked? Is a little part of the site tongue in cheek?

 

 
  Jeff: Kind of. My buddy is kind of a hair-brained scheme fella. He thought we could make a few  
 

dollars selling t-shirts and wanted me to program the site. We had some humor up there at first, but no one got the joke so we stopped trying to be funny. There were a few people who caught the jokes, but most people just misunderstood our intentions. For example, we had a list of quotes about Kobe Bryant that were obviously made up. One was from a 76 year old Sarasota, FL woman who said, "He looks like such a nice boy." Oh, boy, did we hear about that one! One man wrote a multi-page email to me about how that is the danger of public thought. How appearances are deceiving.

BT: You donated proceeds from T-shirts etc. to The Women's Sports Foundation. Why sell anything? And why that charity?

Jeff: As soon as I started to work on it, I realized that it might not be wise to profit off of someone else's misfortune. So we decided to donate all of the profits to charity. And when I say all of the profits, I mean that when I quit, I had no more money in my bank account than I did when we started the site. Less, actually.

We originally had a charity based in New York that provided legal assistance to the homeless and prostitutes, but they didn't return our calls. We chose the women's sports charity because we received a lot of e-mail that grouped our point of view in with those who blamed the victim. I got tired of reading "WHAT ABOUT THE GIRL?????" so I decided to send the money to a charity that not only stands for something that I believe in, but also something that is at least tangentially related to the case.

BT: People are accused of shit all the time and it's not as if you are normally a crusader for blind justice (or are you - mild-mannered grad student by day; "Unbreakable" at night?). What was it about this case that made you want to stand up and talk about it?

Jeff: I was drawn to Kobe precisely because, based on reputation, he is the last on my list of NBA stars to get caught up in something like this. This case is exceptionally high profile because Kobe has (had?) a reputation for being a family man and an all-around good guy. Despite the proliferation of "evidence" ranging from a cab driver's affidavit to whatever DNA evidence the Eagle County DA has, the public is still in the dark about the particulars of what happened. It is as true today as it was [about] two weeks ago when the site went up. Therefore, we wanted to protect Kobe's basic American right to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. It is really easy to blame the alleged criminal or the alleged victim in a sexual assault case. We don't want to do either until the jury comes back.

BT: "Free Kobe" seemed to have an implicit expectation of his innocence. So did you feel totally gypped when he admitted to cheating on his wife?

Jeff: Not really. The Free in FreeKobe.com is more about basic American freedoms addressed in the Sixth Amendment. At first, we had a line on the front page that said something like, "We don't care that he is, in fact, free" because it wasn't about prison. It was about living in a media-driven environment where anyone high-profile will be scrutinized before scrutiny is necessary. But again, no one got the joke so we took it down.

BT: What kind of people want to Free Kobe?

Jeff: Laker fans.

BT: What kind of people don't?

Jeff: Sixers fans.

BT: The message board on the site is pretty intense. I've seen racial slurs, threats against the woman involved and conspiracy theories concerning the Denver Nuggets.

Jeff: It's overwhelming, to say the least. Not to mention the amount of misogynistic posts blaming [the woman].

BT: Do you think the Internet and specifically sites like FreeKobe.com shape the court of public opinion? Consider if the Internet were popular during the OJ trial -freethejuice.net and so forth.

Jeff: The message boards will influence only the simplest of people. [But] FreeKobe.com gives supporters a vocabulary to justify their support of Kobe.

BT: You talk like an English prof.

Jeff: There are many people who want to wait for more information and who get very upset when others just pronounce Kobe guilty. FreeKobe.com gives supporters a valid reason to continue their support in the face of a serious criminal prosecution.

BT: In terms of "I'm not the only one who thinks this?"

Jeff: Absolutely. I'm not saying that FreeKobe.com is a savior of the American judicial system. Far from it. But the underlying idea, pinned underneath the crass commercialism, is that Kobe's rights are being violated. And no one can control it. Certainly the rich don't need more protection from our system, but no American deserves a media trial before the criminal one.

BT: You recently discontinued your involvement with the site. Besides the New York Post calling you, why?

Jeff: I only wanted to be involved with the site if 100% of the profits went to charity.

BT: That's not happening now?

Jeff: I believe [the site] will continue to donate money. I think now [FreeKobe.com] is a little bigger than anyone can handle. I'm happy that my partner is successful, but I don't think a FreeKobe.com thong is in good taste. It's great that he sells a bunch of t-shirts. But I didn't want to sell t-shirts. So there is the fundamental difference: we fought, and he won. When we made over $1,000, I wanted to stop. We could pay for a year's worth of webhosting and just devote the site to political issues. Instead, per the terms of my resignation, we donated all of that money and I gave the site to my partner.

BT: So what's your over-under on Kobe? Is he just this year's summer news story like shark attacks or Lizzie Grubman attacks or is he totally screwed?

Jeff: I believe that Kobe will be acquitted, but his reputation is already tarnished. People will care in the sense that he won't be a viable spokesperson, but hopefully he will be able to repair his private life. I honestly wish him well. As I do the woman. The whole affair makes me sad.

BT: FreeKobe.com says "we're running out of heroes." Are we really, or just in the sports world? And as JFK has taught us, even the guys we thought were heroes can turn out to be sleazy. So where does that leave us?

Jeff: In the back of the line at the DMV, and we're not going anywhere for a while. Kobe is, to many, a hero and role model. I think that [the JFK reference] is right: due to the intense media coverage of anyone remotely "heroic," we discover that everyone is fallible. The Kobe news came on the heels of the Sammy Sosa corked bat incident, so here were two icons that had a lot of PR work to do. All joking aside, I even rooted for the conjoined Iranian twins, but when they died I really discovered that we are, indeed, running out of heroes.

 

*BT*

Aileen Gallagher is a proud Radnor High School Graduate, Class of '96. She is a managing editor at The Black Table.