NEWPORT COAST, Calif. - A thick, black tarp drapes the front iron gate of Kobe Bryant's $4.1 million Mediterranean-style home in the exclusive Ocean Ridge area.

Three private security vehicles with tinted windows patrol the cul-de-sac and surrounding streets. At least three bodyguards - two with permits to carry firearms - hover around the residence, protecting the privacy and safety of the Los Angeles Lakers star now accused of sexual assault.

Since the allegations emerged, the fiercely private Bryant, 24, has been undergoing immense scrutiny.

Tearful and holding the hand of his wife, Vanessa, Bryant apologized in a televised news conference on July 18 for committing adultery but declared his innocence of sexual assault.

Earlier that day, Colorado authorities had charged Bryant with Class 3 felony sexual assault, accusing him of forcing a 19-year-old front-desk employee to have sex with him June 30 at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Bryant is free on $25,000 bail and scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Eagle, Colo.

No longer is Bryant just the public, polished, confident, smiling, slam-dunking, wholesome sports champion who saves basketball games.

Accused of a crime, Bryant, solemn and perhaps scared, is a man trying to save himself.

Called into question will be Bryant's off-the-court life and revealed might be sides of his character that even those close to him never knew.

With the case barely started, already more is known than the image may have led some to believe: Lakers loner, driven son who became estranged from his father, young husband who strayed and troubled man who could face life in prison.

No bad-boy image

As a player, Bryant has soared, throwing down dunks that rattle opponents' hearts and lift Lakers fans' hopes.

The 6-foot-7 guard is a five-time All-Star and a Lakers co-captain. His NBA championship rings could cover three knuckles. His seven-year career averages of 21.5 points and 4.2 assists are Hall of Fame-caliber.

Sports marketers pay the multi-lingual superstar about $13 million a year to pitch for Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, Upper Deck, Spalding and Nintendo.

His six-year, $71 million contract, which earned him $12.3 million last season, shows his team owner appreciates him. His No. 8 Lakers jersey is the top seller in the NBA.

Bryant wasn't the bad-boy athlete mixed up with drugs and guns. He was different.

Before now, his only legal trouble involved speeding. Bryant, who doesn't have a California driver's license, was ticketed for driving his black Mercedes S600 58 mph in a 35-mph zone on San Vicente Boulevard, near the Brentwood office of his agent, Arn Tellem, on July 25, 2001. He now owes $651 for the ticket with late fees.

Bryant's temper has tripped in the throes of competition: He elbowed New York Knicks guard Chris Childs and punched Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller during games and fought with Lakers teammate Samaki Walker on the team bus.

Bryant's uncle, Chubby Cox, who played briefly in the NBA, said Bryant's worst transgression was "putting his feet on my sister's sofa."

But does anybody really know Bryant?