EAGLE, Colo. – When last seen in this small mountain town, Kobe Bryant (search) spent seven minutes in court and uttered just two words. He returns Thursday for an appearance that could be just as brief — but what he says might be a lot more significant.
Bryant could enter a plea of innocent Thursday to the charge he sexually assaulted a hotel worker. If he does, it will begin the legal countdown to a celebrity trial the likes of which have not been seen since O.J. Simpson (search) was tried on murder charges eight years ago.
Already, a media throng that includes former Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark (search) is in place for Bryant's second appearance in two months in a courtroom before a judge used to dealing with more mundane matters such as petty theft and drunken driving.
A gag order is in place for all participants in the case, but that hasn't stopped some 300 television, print and radio types from gathering to report — and speculate — on what fate awaits Bryant.
Unlike Bryant's first appearance, cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom. And, unlike that Aug. 6 appearance, there is some question about what will go on when the NBA star and his lawyers walk into Judge Frederick Gannett's court.
During the earlier hearing, Bryant spoke only the words "No, sir," when Gannett asked if he objected to giving up his right to have a preliminary hearing within 30 days.
The session is scheduled as a preliminary hearing, in which a sheriff's detective would lay out the case against Bryant, accused of raping a 19-year-old woman June 30 at the Cordillera Lodge (search). Gannett would then decide whether the case should go to trial.
But legal analysts have speculated that defense attorneys will waive the hearing at the last minute because they have no chance of winning it and little chance of procuring any additional evidence.
Bryant, free on $25,000 bond, left the Los Angeles Lakers' Hawaii training camp on Wednesday to travel to Colorado.
He has to appear Thursday regardless of the defense strategy. Even if the hearing is waived he faces a bail hearing — and there is a possibility he could enter a plea during an arraignment before another judge.
State courts spokeswoman Karen Salaz said two judges already are on notice they might be called to preside over an arraignment if the defense asks.
Unless he agrees to an immediate arraignment, Bryant would have to return to Eagle within 30 days to answer the charge. District attorney spokeswoman Krista Flannigan, however, said an immediate arraignment was "very unlikely."
The uncertainty surrounding Thursday's court appearance stems from Gannett's gag order, which prohibits attorneys, law enforcement personnel or anyone else connected to the case from discussing it with the media.
There is no confusion about the attention the case has generated in the media. The court plans an audio broadcast of the proceedings in another courtroom to handle the overflow crowd of reporters.
Local businesses were trying to take advantage of the influx during the normally slow fall season in ski country. One resort was offering a "Premium Press Package" that included a hospitality suite and assistance with satellite vehicle parking, while a Vail restaurant was offering a three-course meal of prime Kobe beef for $35 under the heading "Kobe Gets Grilled."