BEIJING – Once Kobe Bryant let that Shaq rap go, he wished that he had resisted responding to so much else throughout his tumultuous 20s. Shaquille O’Neal obliterated him on that June nightclub stage in New York, a TMZ moment that threatened to drag Bryant back into that Hollywood trash-tabloid place.
Here was Bryant on his 30th birthday, on the eve of playing Spain for his gold-medal moment for United States basketball, and he had such regret that it took so long in his life to let Shaq shadow box.
“The biggest mistake I made was coming up with a rebuttal,” Bryant said. “My philosophy had always been to keep quiet and not to say anything. And by me responding, that drew me into it. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve just let people talk and say what they had to say, and as time goes on, they would’ve seen what was what.
“When you’re young, (you think) ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to say something.’ And all of a sudden…”
All of a sudden, there’s no winning. There’s no way out. Perhaps this is why Bryant seems so liberated, freed from a legacy and life forever framed through the prism of Shaq and their three Los Angeles Lakers’ titles together. As Kobe reshapes his image here with American flags, Jordanesque ferocity and the warm, welcoming touch of a grateful guest, O’Neal is back in the United States facing a restraining order for allegations of stalking an Atlanta woman after several disturbing e-mails and phone threats surfaced.
The old images of the brooding, immature Kobe and the gregarious, life-of-the-championship-party Shaq have turned inside out. Somehow, Kobe’s become the grownup and Shaq the screw-up.
In the wake of the Lakers’ NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, Shaq climbed on that stage and started with the lyrics that, “Kobe couldn’t do without me,” and maybe for the first time cast Bryant as a sympathetic figure. To dismiss the firestorm as deftly as Bryant did – whatever, I’ve got a gold medal to win this summer – cornered Shaq as a fading superstar filled with too much jealousy, too little motivation.
These Olympics have been the most remarkable three weeks of Kobe Bryant’s basketball life. He disdains the marketing “Redeem Team” title, calling it “kind of cheesy” because let’s face it: Those weren’t his international failures over the past eight years. Nike tried so hard to make LeBron James a co-star of these Games but failed miserably. He’s riding shotgun and doesn’t seem terribly thrilled about it. There’s no usurping Bryant in China.
Bryant has won the respect of his teammates, but he doesn’t run in the big cliques on the team. LeBron is the ringleader of the young players, and Kobe goes his own way. He’s won his teammates over with his ferocity, his insatiable need to win, but no one ever gets close to Bryant. He’s a loner, but he learned to lead. When all hell was breaking loose in the semifinal victory over Argentina, it was Bryant working with Jason Kidd to bring his teammates back from the brink of losing composure.
“We didn’t come to tussle,” Bryant said. “We came to win a gold medal.”
When his teammates went in groups to volleyball and women’s basketball games this week, Bryant was over at the U.S.-Brazil gold medal women’s soccer match with his wife and daughters. He waves his American flag, his eyes mesmerized by the dichotomy between the winners and losers, gold and silver.
“I stayed to watch them get their gold medals, just to see what that would be like,” he said.
As much as any NBA player, these Olympics have been a source of pure fascination for Bryant. For this most obsessive perfectionist, a basketball player with a full-time staff “whose whole job, whole purpose, is to just stay on top of my health,” Bryant couldn’t stop putting his own greatness into context with that of the world’s best athletes. He spent several years of his childhood living in Italy and always did have a global perspective on himself. The Olympics have been such a renaissance to his career, Bryant insists that he wants to play as a 34-year-old in 2012 in London.
“If they want me back, I’ll be back,” he said.
Bryant’s popularity is staggering in Asia and Europe, and he insists that, “People here have seen my personality more than in the States. I’ve done tours here. In the season, I’m in that Mamba mode. That switch is on. But during the summer, I’m kicking back and they get to see what a smart-ass I am. They get a chance to relate to you a lot more.
“Half the places you go to in the States, they’re rooting against you. Here, I think they’ve seen more of who I am.”
Well, there’s this idea, too. Bryant will forever have the rape charges in Eagle, Colo., on his permanent stateside record, but they don’t judge him overseas. They don’t care about that dropped case and taking sides in the Lakers’ soap operas and vitriol toward his Lakers bosses and teammates.
They just judge Kobe in the pure way that he judges himself: On the basketball court, peerless.
On his way back home, Bryant will be remembered as the anchor responsible for restoring American basketball glory. His MVP season, his return to the Finals, taught Bryant that he had to give more of himself to get the things that he ultimately wanted.
For the longest time, though, he played the part of the spoiled brat, the baby brother that Shaq had to balance between shaping and scolding, and maybe ultimately defining. Now, Shaq’s career is in sharp decline with a summer of high-comedy, low-rent rap and a stalker complaint in hot pursuit.
Across the world, Bryant goes for his gold medal on Saturday, something it turns out he could do without Shaq. Still, that’s a war Bryant never won and never will. Mostly, he understands that it isn’t even worth waging. Let it go, he tells himself. Let it go.
“As I get older, I do care what people think of me,” Bryant said. “I don’t want them to have the wrong impression. That is important to me. I’m not too big to say that. I’m not embarrassed to say that.
“I care about what people think.”
The world has watched him grow from teenage prodigy to tortured twentysomething to the weekend a world away in China when Kobe Bryant could feel the burdens peeling away like a second skin.
“I’m just happy I made it to 30,” he said. “Now the pressure’s off.”