Kobe brightens Team USA’s hopes for gold

NEW YORK – When it comes to the local basketball populace here, the NBA is divided into, for those of us who overlooked the memo, three distinct classes of players: Knicks, Former Knicks and Future Knicks. It has become a rite among the nation’s largest press corps that any visiting player automatically falls into the last category if: a) he has three or fewer years remaining on his contract; or b) he has ever said anything remotely complimentary about anything remotely connected to the Knicks or New York.

Salary caps and roster limits don’t matter when it comes to the Knicks. In the back pages of the city’s tabloids, you can always find some player apparently willing to take less money to come here – never mind that roughly 90 percent of those who have suited up for the franchise in the past decade arrived with bloated contracts. Hope always springs eternal in the Big Apple, even if you need a block-lettered headline to find it.

This is why LeBron James found himself facing a brigade of cameras and microphones Monday afternoon at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. James was in town with Team USA on a promotional tour, but the media had come largely to quiz him about his love of all things New York. In James’ case, there’s a large degree of legitimacy to the fawning. From his choice of headwear at Cleveland Indians games (Yankees cap) to his relationship with East Coast rap moguls (Jay-Z), he has never attempted to quash speculation that his career path could lead him to New York, if not to the Knicks’ doorstep then certainly that of the Brooklyn-bound Nets.

Monday was no different. James was asked to list his favorite cities. New York ranked first. His favorite borough? Brooklyn. And so it went.

Meanwhile, a few steps down the hall in an adjacent ballroom, another Yankees fan sat in front of his own set of cameras. Kobe Bryant’s questioners numbered about half as those surrounding James and none of them asked him about New York’s transit system or the name of his favorite rapper. (A guess: Not Shaq.)

James was King of New York on this day, and likely will stay such for some time. Bryant didn’t seem to mind being upstaged, nor should he. His fiefdom remains intact. Make no mistake: As brilliantly as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul have played, as much as this young generation of NBA stars has emboldened USA Basketball, this Redeem Team, these Olympics, belong to Kobe.

Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director, and his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, can talk all they want about three-year commitments and chemistry. If he’s lucky, Coach K might even be able to mine another Amex commercial from this gig. But they also know better. This Olympic team has a better chance to bring home the gold medal because it has Kobe Bryant. The failed squads from the 2002 World Championships, ’04 Olympics and ’06 Championships didn’t.

Bryant won’t carry a captain’s title for Team USA because Krzyzewski has no plans to name captains. Bryant and James, he said, are natural leaders. Their teammates already know who to follow.

Krzyzewski is half right. In truth, it was Bryant and Jason Kidd who bailed out James and Carmelo Anthony last summer. Neither was ready to guide Team USA. James has continued to evolve as a leader, but Bryant has allowed him to grow at his own pace, allowed James to be himself. James willingly serves as co-pilot with Kobe around because no player, not even King James himself, carries the cache of Kobe.

Bryant’s decision to sign on for the Olympics, said Toronto Raptors’ forward Chris Bosh, “showed me how serious of a commitment it was going to take.”

“He’s the guy,” Bosh added, “who sets the tone.”

Bryant did just that when he first joined Team USA last summer. After missing the 2006 World Championships because of knee surgery, he arrived at the team’s training camp and promptly asked Krzyzewski to give him the nightly assignment of guarding the opponent’s most dangerous scorer. Fifteen seconds into the first game, the ball squirted loose and Bryant crashed to the floor trying to corral it.

“It just indicated that he was here to make a point,” Colangelo said.

Bryant’s competitiveness didn’t just trickle down through the roster. “It flowed,” Krzyzewski said.

Bryant likens himself to an older brother on the young team. “I’m the senior in high school,” he said, “and they’re freshmen and sophomores.” After following Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury around the 2004 Olympics, too many of those freshmen and sophomores were too often acting like class clowns, which is why USA Basketball officials had no problems keeping a roster spot open for Bryant. This team needs his diligence, his hunger.

“I’ve been in the league since ’66…and the greatest competitor I ever saw was Michael Jordan,” Colangelo said. “The closest thing to him is Kobe.”

Unlike Jordan, Bryant still lacks a gold medal on his resumé. The chance to compete in this summer’s Beijing Games, as well as the promising future of his Los Angeles Lakers, has tempered Bryant’s disappointment over his recent NBA Finals loss. He still needs surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right pinky, but has insisted on waiting until after the Olympics. The Lakers, he said, haven’t tried to convince him otherwise.

“They know how much this means to me,” Bryant said.

That’s not to suggest Bryant is chasing only the Olympic dream. Gold medals also tend to line one’s personal coffers with additional riches, and returning Team USA to the top of the basketball world would be another step in Bryant’s image rehabilitation. Much to the appreciation of USA Basketball officials, Bryant has also refrained from using this week’s promotional tour to further fan the flames of his on-off-on feud with Shaquille O’Neal. Though Shaq recently mocked him during an improvised rap performance here, Bryant has continued to deflect all questions on the subject – even if he’s privately dying to launch his own freestyle rebuttal, as one person close to him insists.

Instead, Bryant continued to speak about sacrifice, about how he and his teammates must alter their games to fit the needs of the team. Someone then asked him why he feels Team USA has a better chance to win gold than it did in ’04.

“Optimism, I guess,” Bryant said, shrugging his shoulders.

Bryant smiled. Why wouldn’t he feel optimistic? After all, this time he’s coming along for the ride.

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