Game Over

Kobe Bryant Marital Breakup Reveals the Ugly Side of NBA Marriages

Vanessa Bryant’s split from Kobe Bryant shows how hard it is to be married to a pro basketball star, former NBA wife Tanya Young Williams tells Allison Samuels.

Johnny Nunez / Getty Images

Tanya Young Williams wasn’t particularly surprised when she heard the news that Vanessa Bryant had filed for divorce from her NBA superstar husband Kobe Bryant last week.

Williams, 43, spent much of her adult life in the stands cheering on her one-time college sweetheart and later NBA star husband Jayson Williams as he scored big points on the national front. The two enjoyed what appeared to be a fairytale romance after meeting as freshmen at St. John’s University. Jayson was indeed everything Tanya thought she wanted in a man, with his movie-star good looks, quick wit, and charming demeanor. Unfortunately none of those admirable attributes were enough to keep the couple on track or together when big money, NBA fame and fast life came knocking on their door.

“Every woman walks down the aisle thinking their marriage is going to last forever,’’ says Williams, who filed for divorce in 2009 after years of alleged abuse by Williams, and his eventual conviction on manslaughter and DUI charges. “You think you’re marrying this great guy and life is going to just be this wonderful dream world. But you’re never prepared for when everything changes and he changes with it. When that fame hits, everyone around your husband starts telling him he’s great and he’s perfect. As a wife, you’re supposed to just fall in line and go along with it all. That wears thins after a while.’’

Jayson Williams is serving five years in prison for the 2002 shooting death of his limousine driver.

It apparently took 10 years for things to wear thin for Vanessa Bryant, who stood by the Los Angeles Lakers superstar even as he was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at a Colorado hotel in 2003. Bryant admitted he had sex with the 19-year-old hotel clerk, but denied it was rape. Sources close to the couple say that while Bryant gifted his young wife with a sparkling 4-carat purple diamond ring (the ring has been immortalized in several rap songs over the years) as an apology during his fall from grace and criminal trial, his cheating ways never ceased.

“He toned it down shortly after the mess in Colorado happened because he was scared,’’ said the wife of another NBA player. “But everyone knew he was still messing around on Vanessa. She knew it too, but held on because ex-wives don’t go to the finals. It’s not just about the money, it’s about the perks you get away from the game just because you’re the wife.’’

It seems that being the wife or gal pal of either a moderately known or wildly popular NBA star automatically guarantees much more than a pair of court-side seats. According to one NBA mate, it also means having the first pick of the most coveted Chloe handbags, Christian Louboutin shoes, and enough face time to become a regular on the pages of all the weekly tabloids. What more could a girl want?

In an era where the viewing public just can’t seem to get enough of reality shows that feature the over-the-top, dysfunctional lives of basketball, baseball, and football wives, Bryant’s divorce only heightens the fascination and intrigue.

“When I met and married Jayson 20 years ago, the wives and girlfriends received no attention at all. No one cared who they were married to or who they were dating,’’ remembers Tanya Young Williams. “No one noticed you, but today all you have to do is go on two dates with an NBA player and you’re a star, too. It’s a strange new world, and these young girls get very caught up in the fame more than anything.’’

Williams says she gladly gave up her professional career in law to follow her husband from city to city during the year and from team to team during trades in the off season.

“No matter how hard you try not, you really do give up yourself and your life when you marry an athlete,’’ said Williams, the mother of two. “It becomes all about them, the game they just played, or what was just written in the paper, or what some sports announcer said about their skills. You have to be their mother and their lover all at one time. That’s a lot of work.’’

One benefit Young Williams says she enjoyed that the new crop of NBA wives doesn’t, is the guiding wisdom of women who’d traveled the same rocky road before.

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Though “Behind The Bench’’ is a NBA wives club designed to offer support and advice to spouses, Williams says she’s more thankful for the one-on-one mentoring she received from the likes of Turquoise Erving (Dr. J’s ex-wife) and Cookie Johnson (Magic’s wife.)

“The young girls today that marry these guys won’t listen to anyone,’’ says Williams. “I’ve tried to pass on what I know, but these young girls pay you no mind. But one bit of advice Cookie Johnson gave me that I never forgot was to not let anyone else get into my marriage. She told me that I had to keep the media, the team, and other women out of my marriage if I wanted it to last. She told me not to listen to what other people had to say about my marriage. I tried to do that for as long as I could, but it wasn’t easy.’’

Vanessa Bryant supposedly was told of her husband’s numerous affairs by other Los Angeles Laker wives who were made privy of the extra-marital activities by their NBA spouses. While many assume this was a comforting act of sisterly love by other basketball wives, others claim it was more an act of revenge by women long annoyed by Vanessa’s “Queen Bee’’ attitude and refusal to work with or befriend them.

“I’m not aware of many people that actually like Vanessa, to be honest, so I’m not sure there’s much sympathy for her,’’ said Williams. “She wasn’t a woman that went out of her way to be friendly with the other females around her or to give back to those in need, really. I’m not sure the women were looking out for her by telling her Kobe was cheating. I think they were more busting her bubble.’’

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant have both had their share of popularity issues during their marriage, and time with the Lakers. The couple was often viewed as immature, aloof, and unable and unwilling to listen to the knowledgeable voices around them. Sources close to the point guard say the likes of NBA greats Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan urged the Laker player to arrange a pre-nup with Vanessa before he walked down the aisle. Bryant’s neglecting to do so may result in his losing half of his estimated $150 million fortune.

“All those major guys told Kobe not to take a chance on his marriage lasting forever in the industry,’’ said a former teammate of Bryant’s. “Those guys knew the ropes long before Kobe ever got into the league. But Kobe is hard-headed like that and thought he knew better.’’

While their lives may all appear to revolve around money, mayhem and humiliation, a few basketball wives such as Cookie Johnson, Tracy Mourning (Alonzo Mourning) and Tamia Hill (Grant Hill) hope to soon cast a completely differently light on NBA marriages for the public to see and hear. Johnson plans to hold forums around the country with Mourning and Hill that emphasize the number of healthy and happy marriages in the NBA, while also inspiring young women to follow their own dreams and not bank on marrying a rich and famous athlete.

“We all aren’t living that dysfunctional and unhappy life that’s shown on television,’’ says Johnson. “We’re all not fighting with each other, and we’re all not miserable in our marriages. There are happy marriages in the NBA and marriages where both spouses support and love each other.’’

Young Williams believes the same, and while she insists she’s not bitter about her NBA experience, she’s relieved to be free of the emotional roller coaster ride that kept her constantly questioning her man’s fidelity, and her own sanity.

“I’m sure my husband loved me even with the cheating and violence. Kobe probably loves Vanessa despite all he supposedly did. But I couldn’t go on sleeping with a knife under my pillow or wondering if he’s cheating or wondering why I wasn’t enough to make him happy,’’ said Young Williams, who now’s currently the spokeswoman for the National Domestic Hotline. “I had to make a decision to show my two young daughters that they could have a better life with a mate who treats them with respect.’’