The Complicated Love Story of Kobe and Vanessa Bryant
A look back at the pained but enduring relationship between the late NBA superstar and the woman mourning him.
In August 1999, 17-year-old high school student Vanessa Laine was leaving an all-day rap festival in Irvine, California, when a man approached her holding a camcorder. He was scouting for pretty girls to model in music videos. She fit the mold. Was she interested?
Laine recited her name and number for the camera, and days later she started getting gigs. For a three-month stretch that fall, Laine shot videos for Krazy Bone, The Eastsidaz’ “G’d Up,” and a rap album featuring her future husband—the 21-year-old Lakers shooting guard and youngest All-Star starter in NBA history, Kobe Bryant.
Last month, more than two decades after that concert, Bryant boarded a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter from Los Angeles to the nearby suburb of Thousand Oaks, and died in a crash that claimed the lives of eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant. The basketball icon left behind millions of fans, dozens of teammates, and three more daughters—along with Vanessa and the memory of their loving, but complicated 20-year marriage. The family held a private burial near the Bryant’s family home in early February. And on Monday morning, 20,000 fans and friends will pack the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, as people across the country watch a live stream of a public memorial to Bryant and his daughter.
It will be the first public display of Vanessa Bryant’s new reality—the first step in what will surely be a series of gestures geared toward honoring her husband’s complex legacy.
When Vanessa and Kobe first met, their lives were almost nothing alike. The rising high school senior split her time between Algebra II and a retail job at the Westminster Mall. She lived at home with her mother and stepfather, who both worked at a nearby electronics store. When she went out on weekends, according to one 2005 Los Angeles Times profile of the former model, Vanessa called her protective parents on the hour.
Bryant, by contrast, had been born into NBA royalty—his father, Joe Bryant, played for the Houston Rockets, San Diego Clippers, and Philadelphia 76ers—and split his childhood between Philadelphia and Italy. When he met Vanessa, Bryant was finishing his third season in the NBA. He had just signed a six-year contract worth nearly $71 million.
Still, it was 1999, and the pair had one thing in common: a pager. In late November, Bryant asked Laine for her number. After a few back and forth phone calls, they were dating, and six months later, engaged.
Vanessa was still a high school senior at the time, at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, where news of the engagement sent the students and press into a frenzy. Contemporaneous reports painted the picture of an academy swarmed by TV vans, cable news helicopters, and locals all craning for a glimpse of the NBA star. “I met him. I swear. I saw his forehead when he came to pick her up at school,” a junior named Erika McWilliams told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I was all: Whoa! And I ran up to the car and I was all: Omigod! And he was all: Hi! And I was all: It’s all about Kobe! I was shaking.”
Their courtship was hard to miss—Bryant bombarded the school with flowers for her and picked her up each day in a sprawling black Mercedes. Vanessa swapped out her schoolgirl wardrobe for designer dresses and a seven-carat ring. Some details were more typical: Vanessa reportedly hung Bryant’s picture in her locker and pasted it to her notebooks. But the Kobe delirium eventually reached such extreme heights that the school asked Vanessa to finish her senior year at home, doing independent study.
When the couple married in April 2001 at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point, a beachside Orange County town, only 12 guests attended. The partnership had been polarizing among Bryant’s milieu, variously over the fact that Vanessa was young, not black, and working class, without a prenup. (The pairing was so divisive one Sportingnews.com reporter dubbed Vanessa “the New Yoko.”) Bryant’s parents stopped speaking to him; neither his managers, teammates, nor even his sisters were at the wedding ceremony.
Not long after the wedding, Vanessa’s mom and stepdad split in a bitter divorce, threatening to erode their relationship with their daughter, which already may have been strained by her newfound wealth. Meanwhile, Bryant and Vanessa settled down in a $4.1 million mansion in Newport Beach and had a child of their own. The couple had a thing for diamonds—Vanessa’s engagement ring clocked in around seven carats, which one jeweler estimated in the Los Angeles Times to be the “size of nickel, maybe even a quarter,” and cost somewhere around $100,000. They named their daughter Natalia Diamante.
Vanessa rarely spoke to the media, and her friends and family didn’t either, so the state of their partnership wasn’t always clear. But things took a distinct turn for the worse on June 30, 2003, when Bryant checked into the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colorado, while in town for a knee operation at a nearby clinic. He had arrived at the hotel late, and a 19-year-old hotel clerk escorted him to his room. Bryant asked for a private tour of the hotel, which she granted, showing him the pool, jacuzzi and spa, before returning to his room to talk. According to an interview later given to the Eagle County Sheriff’s office, laid out in detail by The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, when the 19-year-old stood up to leave, Bryant asked her to give him a hug and began to kiss her. She went on to allege that Bryant started groping her, pulling at her clothes, and choking her.
The teen told police that the basketball player raped her. The evidence in her favor was strong: a medical examination the next day found bruises on her jawline and vaginal injuries consistent with forced penetration. There was blood on Bryant’s shirt down to “about the waistline,” according to an investigator’s testimony in a preliminary hearing, which matched the DNA profile of the alleged victim. Eagle County law enforcement issued an arrest warrant for Bryant and charged him with sexual assault, but the case never made it to trial. Prosecutors dismissed the charges in September of 2004 after the accuser, who had also filed a civil case against Bryant and spent months getting smeared by his attorneys and fans, declined to testify. The civil case settled for an undisclosed amount in 2005.
Bryant repeatedly denied the accusations, but after the criminal case closed, he issued an apology of sorts. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual,” Bryant wrote in the statement his attorney read in court, “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.” Bryant had previously apologized in a press conference, sitting beside his wife. As he confessed to “the mistake of adultery,” Vanessa stared out into the crowd, wearing an expression so icy it became an SNL skit. Bryant topped off his mea culpas with a gift: the $4 million purple diamond “apology” ring.
The years that followed were tense. Vanessa had never been one to back down from perceived slights—her step-cousin recalled in the Times a moment when Vanessa had gone to the mat in a Chuck E. Cheese with a kid and his mother over some arcade tokens stolen from her cousin. But for a spell in the mid-aughts, the news was flush with accounts of her altercations. There was the fan at a Laker-Clippers game who dissed her husband (“Vanessa turns around and was like, ‘I have had enough!’” the singer Brandy, who witnessed the interaction, told Africana.com. “[And] she goes off on the guy.”) There was the drunk father she got kicked out of a high school pal’s wedding. Most famously, there was the manager of a Jimmy Choo shoe store, whom Vanessa reportedly chewed out in front of fans after he refused to accept some returned merchandise.
She owned the reputation; her vanity plate read “ICE QN.”
At the same time, tabloids filled with accounts of her alleged flirtations with Bryant’s ex-teammate Karl Malone, causing a rift between the two players and a months-long beef later dubbed “Vanessa-gate.” But beneath the public hostility was undoubtedly private pain. Not long after her marriage got vivisected in the press, the 27-year-old had an ectopic pregnancy and miscarried what would have been her second child. Later, Bryant would confess that he blamed himself, after all the stress he put her through. “We were expecting our second child during that time… and there was just so much stress, she actually, she actually miscarried,” Bryant said in a segment of his documentary, Muse. “It’s something I have a real hard time dealing with that ’cause I felt like it was just my fault... The reality is it happened because of me… that’s something I have to deal with. Something I gotta carry forever.”
In the years after, the couple’s marriage seesawed. There was good news: They started the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, dedicated to serving Los Angeles' growing unhoused population. They had another child, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant. And Vanessa, who rarely granted interviews, arrived at a grudging detente with her spotlight. “I thought things would go away, if you don’t feed into the b.s., and no one would think about you,” Vanessa said, in a rare conversation with New York magazine’s Vanessa Grigoriadis, in 2012. “Now I realize I do have to talk about certain things. Still, I don’t like the limelight. There’s a lot of good you can do with fame, like creating awareness for a foundation, but a lot of negativity comes along with it.”
But in 2011, Vanessa had filed for divorce from Bryant, citing irreconcilable differences. The couple did not disclose in documents or interviews what those differences entailed; reports emerged on TMZ and elsewhere alleging that Vanessa had “very recently” caught Bryant in the latest of several infidelities. The separation did not last long. In the New York interview the following year, Vanessa said things were on the mend (“Um,” she said, “yes. We’re working on things.”). And just months after that, the couple called the divorce off entirely. “We are pleased to announce that we have reconciled," Vanessa wrote in an Instagram caption. “Our divorce action will be dismissed. We are looking forward to our future together.”
By 2015, when Bryant announced his retirement from the NBA at the end of the season, public tensions had been displaced by open support. In an Instagram post dated Nov. 29, 2015, Vanessa posted a photo of a poem Bryant had written about his retirement from basketball. “You can walk away knowing you’ve always played with everything you have, babe. I’m so proud of you. I’m proud of everything you’ve given to all of your fans even when you weren’t feeling your best,” she wrote in the caption. “I’m so excited to see what God has in store for us as a family now that one chapter is closing and new ones are opening.”
Some of those new chapters were children. In the following years, Bryant and Vanessa had two more kids. Bianka Bella Bryant was born in December 2016. Capri Kobe Bryant arrived just last summer, in June. Vanessa had always wanted a son, but Bryant loved having girls. “Guys keep teasing me,” he told Extra in 2017. “My friends say, ‘It takes a real man to make a boy.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, it takes a king to make a princess… get in line.’”
Seven months after Capri was born, Bryant’s helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and made its way toward Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks, where Gianna was slated to play a noon game. The chopper never made it.
The outpouring after the crash was immediate, seismic, and polarized. As she grieved, Vanessa received an outpouring of support from major celebrities and ordinary fans. “RIP Kobe, hero to many including my grandson, extraordinary athlete and always kind to me & my family,” Whoopi Goldberg wrote on Twitter. “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents,” Barack Obama said. Mariah Carey added: “In shock right now. RIP Kobe 😢”
The public was also reminded of the most trying chapter in the couple’s shared history. In fact, numerous media controversies quickly sprang up over the re-airing of the rape allegations in the aftermath of Kobe's death, this time in the context of the MeToo movement.
Through all this, Vanessa laid low. She turned her Instagram private, and declined requests for interviews. But on the evening of Jan. 29, she posted a picture on Instagram. The photo showed Vanessa and her late husband surrounded by their daughters with a caption thanking fans for their support and urging them to donate to the family’s youth initiative, Mamba Sports Foundation.
In the following weeks, Vanessa mourned mostly with images—a photo of her daughter and husband’s jerseys, No. 2 and 24; a drawing of Gianna in Lakers gear; videos from the 13-year-old’s school memorial. But on Feb. 10, the woman who had spent decades largely steering clear of overexposure took a shot at articulating her grief. Alongside a video of Bryant coaching one of Gianna’s games, the widow wrote what amounts to her most candid and vulnerable statement in two decades.
“I’ve been reluctant to put my feelings into words,” she wrote. “My brain refuses to accept that both Kobe and Gigi are gone. I can’t process both at the same time. It’s like I’m trying to process Kobe being gone but my body refuses to accept my Gigi will never come back to me. It feels wrong. Why should I be able to wake up another day when my baby girl isn’t being able to have that opportunity?! I’m so mad. She had so much life to live. Then I realize I need to be strong and be here for my 3 daughters. Mad I’m not with Kobe and Gigi but thankful I’m here with Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
“I know what I’m feeling is normal,” she added. “It’s part of the grieving process. I just wanted to share in case there’s anyone out there that’s experienced a loss like this. God I wish they were here and this nightmare would be over. Praying for all of the victims of this horrible tragedy. Please continue to pray for all.”