Around the U.S. Olympic basketball team, the players had come to understand the odd machinations of life with Kobe Bryant, learning to laugh away the self-love and peculiarities of the planet’s best player.
His teammates called him out when he speed-walked into the opening ceremony, leaving them several yards behind to treat his own entrance with the lavish ovation that it deserved. Together, they understood the reality that it was all about Kobe on the way into those Games. And, alone, Chris Paul discovered how it would be all about Kobe on the way out of the gold-medal game against Spain.
As Paul worked his way to the free-throw line to shoot two technical fouls with 26 seconds left, Bryant could be seen intruding on the space, nudging Paul out of the way to take those shots for himself. Paul flashed a perplexed look, but resistance was futile.
“Come on, Kobe had to pad his stats,” another Team USA teammate would laugh later.
It didn’t go unnoticed, but no one cared much in the celebration of the gold-medal victory. They met again in the Lakers' 93-86 vanquishing on Wednesday night, the 2008 MVP, Bryant, and his runner-up, Paul. The Hornets and Houston Rockets are the rising threats in the Western Conference, and the Lakers slapped the two of them silly. Bryant brought the unbeaten Lakers into New Orleans to deliver two messages. The West will be ours again, the MVP mine.
So far, the Lakers are on a search and destroy. Bryant has been his brilliant self, and with the possibility of a 70-victory season in Los Angeles, how could he be denied an MVP? Yes, LeBron James is making his bid, but Paul has broken Oscar Robertson’s record with six straight 20-point and 10-assist games to start the season. Privately, Bryant never believed that Paul had paid his playoff dues to be in the MVP conversation a year ago, but the game’s best point guard is back again.
For Bryant, this season is no longer about resurrecting his reputation. The NBA Finals run, the MVP, the gold medal, were his redemptive route. As Paul and James and Dwyane Wade jockey, the 30-year-old Bryant has completed a transformation from petulant superstar to enlightened elder. After an Olympics in which his performance, sunny disposition and, yes, private manipulations, regenerated his global image, Bryant has found a true second act in his career.
Across the summer, Bryant’s desire to use the Games for their transformative powers wasn’t lost on his USA Basketball teammates. Most days, it was pure entertainment for them. For instance, they found it curious that he would go his own way most mornings on the pre-Olympic tour of Macau and Shanghai, even when a teammate would arrange for a team breakfast before practice. They would ask him where he had been, and he’d tell them, well, I was working out, lifting, running, whatever. And a lot of times, it was true.
Once the flight touched down in Beijing, they found interesting the way that he started to throw his arms around his teammates like he was just one of the guys on the trip. And with the way that Bryant’s popularity inspired pure chaos in public appearances in Beijing, they never noted much reluctance to create those images of hysteria for the television cameras and photo lenses.
Bryant once arrived late for a women’s basketball game where several of his teammates were sitting near the floor with security surrounding them. A private athletes-only entrance had been arranged for them to enter, so they wouldn’t have to march through the stands and create a scene. Well, Kobe wanted no part of it. He marched through the stands, which made security have to create a wall to surround him.
Nothing nasty, just deliberate. Just Kobe. And why did he fly home commercial on the same day that there was a team charter taking most of the players back to the States? Who knows. That’s just Kobe. Ultimately, they all knew his importance to the team, and they all knew what he gave them on the floor. He could be the most competitive athlete on the planet, and, well, no one dared suggest that they would’ve won this gold medal without him.
Now, Bryant is chasing a championship with the specter of a contract opt-out this summer. Already, a source close to his camp says that European powers have reached out quietly to his representation and set baselines for a possible free-agent contract. Offers of $30 million a year in Greece and Italy promise to be on the table, and, says one associate, “I guarantee whatever happens that Kobe will take that whole European thing down to the wire before he re-signs with the Lakers.”
That’s how it goes with Kobe Bryant. The basketball world belongs to him again and he’s going to take a nice, slow walk through and let the love wash over him. Resistance is forever futile.