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25 August 2004 Hoop dreams became reality for Kobe Bryant at the age of 17, when he became a professional basketball player straight out of high school. The vast majority of pros make a name for themselves in college basketball before joining the NBA, but Kobe Bryant was so good he skipped the normally mandatory four years of college. Eight years after turning pro, he was an American sporting icon who seemingly had it all. Three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, a multi-million-dollar fortune, a beautiful wife and daughter, and the adulation of a sports-crazy nation. But then came allegations that he sexually assaulted a young woman at a hotel in Colorado on 30 June, 2003. Bryant denied rape but said that he and the college student had had consensual sex, tarnishing his previously squeaky-clean image. That image matters to a man whose talent and star qualities have netted him massive sponsorship deals with Nike and Coca-Cola, among others. Lurid tales of American sportsmen behaving badly are a staple feature of the US media. But interest in Bryant's case made sideshows of all the others, and even overshadowed the 2003-04 NBA season itself. The reason? Because it's Kobe. Basketball's biggest name: The 6ft 6in 26-year-old, who plays guard for the NBA's Hollywood glamour team, is regarded as his sport's biggest name. Bryant may have bypassed college to turn pro, but he has the air of a well-rounded individual - he speaks fluent Italian - a giant of the sport without the ego to match. Cool headed, quietly spoken, respectful unless sorely provoked, he was seen by many as the natural successor to Michael Jordan - the NBA's greatest-ever player. Growing up in Philadelphia, Bryant certainly had a head start thanks to his father Joe, who had him practising at the age of 13 with one of his former teams, the 76ers. The former National High School Player of the Year was picked 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft but traded to the Lakers a few months later. Bryant became the youngest-ever player to appear in an NBA game, coming on against Dallas aged 18 years, two months and 11 days on 3 November. He struggled initially against older, bigger players, but his will to win and outstanding talent saw him established as a Lakers starter. Bryant's scoring feats and prowess, particularly in tandem with giant centre Shaquille O'Neal - who also joined the Lakers in 1996 - helped re-establish the team as the NBA's dominant force. They took the title in 2000, 2001 and 2002 - and came close in 2004, losing in the finals to the Detroit Pistons. Some observers blamed Bryant for the team's failure to win the title this year, saying his game was off amid the pressure of defending himself from the rape allegation. But his team, at least, is sticking by him - they recently signed him to a new contract that the US magazine Sports Illustrated described as "a $10m wager on his innocence". Source: BBC News (bbc.co.uk/news)