LAS VEGAS – He’s been playing “What would’ve been?” for most of the month, and sometime Sunday night Kobe Bryant will have to return his Team USA toys on the Strip, including Jason Kidd, and rejoin the Bynum and Bailey Circus with the Lakers.
No more Pilates in his hotel room with the Nets point guard.
“I wore out his ass,” Kobe bragged.
No more clowning with Carmelo Anthony on the bench.
“He’s a fool,” Kobe kidded.
No more playing with a cast of teammates straight out of his wildest dreams, out of Mitch Kupchak’s reach.
“We’re all spoiled,” Kobe sighed.
If Bryant wasn’t the most dominant player in the United States' devastating 135-91 semifinal victory over Puerto Rico on Saturday, he sure has been it in these FIBA Americas Championships. Behind Bryant, the United States didn’t just use this tournament to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, but reaffirm itself as the gold standard in Beijing next summer.
As much as anyone, Bryant could live in this Vegas fantasy forever. Once the gold medal game against Argentina is over Sunday, Team USA’s players go home with NBA training camps starting within the month. Milwaukee’s Michael Redd, back to a lottery team of his own, confessed, “We’re going to have low tolerance for our teams when we get back to camp.”
No one will have less patience than Bryant, whose summer with the Americans has made him only more determined to chase championships again. He goes back to a Lakers team largely unchanged over a season ago, destined again for a low-Western Conference playoff seed, an early exit, and another Kobe combustion.
There’s a chance that no one will see Bryant smile again until the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. “The athleticism, the basketball IQ – It’s really been an honor, a blessing, to be around this talent every single day,” Bryant said.
Privately, Bryant is still livid that the Lakers wouldn’t give up Andrew Bynum for Kidd at the trade deadline last season. It doesn’t make it easier that Kidd desperately wanted to play with the Lakers, and was deeply disappointed when the trade fell apart. In the time they’ve spent together in Vegas, Kobe said that Kidd has, “taught me a lot about reading the floor, about what he’s looking at on the court.”
What’s more, Kidd knows: Vince Carter is no Kobe.
“This is something that I will always remember,” Kidd told me Saturday. “This is something that could’ve been. We could be talking (with each other) about, ‘what are you going to do? Are you going to work out? I’ll see you back in LA.’
“But unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
As badly as Bryant, Kidd wanted it too. Still, he has peace of mind returning to a Nets team that could contend in the Eastern Conference. Bryant’s volatile early summer of trade demands and attacks on the Lakers organization has been tempered with this Team USA run. He’s had the time of his basketball life here. He’s been on his best behavior, trying to undo the damage he had done to his name.
Longtime league insiders were surprised to see Bryant and his wife at the opening of a club at the team’s hotel on Friday night, with one going so far to say to him, "You never go out in public. He's trying to be a part of this team, really trying, they're saying.
“He’s really befriended everybody,” Redd said. “We’ve got a chance to know him and he’s gotten a chance to know us.”
Even when he was winning championships with the Lakers, there was always some drama, always some conflict. Here, it’s so much easier. In a lot of ways, August has been the most liberating month of his life, one with which Bryant has re-established himself as the star among stars, reminded the world that no one plays the ends of the floor the way that he does. He has tortured offensive stars in the FIBA American Championship, chasing those with and without the ball like nothing anyone’s seen in years out of him on defense.
“He’s brought an intensity, an edge, to us that maybe people had only seen in Michael Jordan,” Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said.
If Bryant understands that he won’t be competing for his fourth championship in the spring with the Lakers, he knows he’ll be chasing his first gold medal in Beijing with Team USA. If nothing else, his debut with USA Basketball has been a chance to re-stamp himself as a winner. “Look at Kobe who has championships -– the one thing he is missing is the gold medal,” Kidd said. What’s more, the one thing he’s missing is showing that he can be a part of something bigger than his own ego and hubris.
No one is shrewder at recasting himself, reshaping his public image after an embarrassing episode, as Bryant. In Vegas, he’s been the most popular kid in class, charming and selfless. Slowly, surely, he’s positioning himself as the savior to bring back gold medal glory to basketball’s beleaguered red, white and blue.
The best American player goes home on Sunday night, and he does so without all his favorite, shiny new toys. The Lakers camp starts in a few weeks in Hawaii, and Kobe Bryant confessed that he’s leaving Las Vegas “spoiled” now. There will be no Jason Kidd to pass the ball and work out with him, no ‘Melo to share a scoring spree and a laugh. Just Kobe and his low tolerance, just Kobe and a lost Lakers cause that has pushed him to the brink.