BEIJING – For Kobe Bryant, there has long been something so liberating about leaving the United States and traveling out into the big, beautiful basketball world. He still is as polarizing as he is popular in America, but across the globe they’ve never judged Bryant so harshly for past misdeeds. They give him what he wants, which is what they always gave Michael Jordan: unconditional adulation.
When Bryant walked into the National Stadium for these Beijing Games, even the biggest Olympic star of them all became breathless over the magnitude of the moment. Here was the most magnificent, most moving opening ceremony since Barcelona in 1992, and only the Chinese national team inspired a louder roar than Kobe Bean Bryant. He knows what ’92 did for the Dream Team and Jordan, and knows what it can do for him now.
All along, Bryant has insisted that a gold medal would be bigger than his three NBA titles. No one believes him, but he keeps saying it anyway. “This is way bigger,” he said again and promises to repeat all the way to the gold medal game.
“The whole field is covered with the greatest athletes in the world,” he said. “There’s no greater place on earth. I’ve never been part of something this big before.”
For now, Bryant is constructing a formidable game of leverage with his admission to Yahoo! Sports that he won’t sign a long-term contract with the Lakers until he’s explored the European market, that he’s become intrigued with the possibility of investigating an owner-player arrangement in the burgeoning Euroleague. Just a day earlier, Bryant had told Marc Spears of the Boston Globe that a $50 million-a-season contract could lure him to his boyhood home of Italy.
Bryant’s childhood there and three NBA championships in the bank make some league officials believe he’s the wildcard candidate to make that leap of faith out of the NBA and into Europe. Nevertheless, all of us understand it’s the longest of long shots. The state of these Lakers gives him a chance to win more championships, and even he called it “almost impossible” to leave that behind in Los Angeles.
Yet, Bryant’s on a roll right now, and he’ll do it all on his terms. Between now and then, the world watches him campaign to his public on three fronts.
For his American fans, he’s pitching a deep Patriotism, a love for the red, white and blue that leaves him longing for a gold medal.
For his Euro fans, he’s submitting a respect for the international game that’s so strong he would consider leaving the NBA to play for them.
For his Far East hosts, Bryant would say of Sunday night’s electric opening game between Team USA and China, “I expect it to be the highest energy game I’ve ever been a part of, just because of the crowd, the anticipation of it all.
“This feels good, like a home away from home.”
Bryant has lost so much marketing luster back in the States, but he’s still selling shoes and those No. 24 Lakers jerseys. Still, most of his national endorsers never came back to him after the rape allegations in Eagle, Colorado. If Madison Avenue considered a return last year, Bryant scared them away again with his tantrums about wanting out of Los Angeles. He makes no apologies for soliciting those European offers, even to those Lakers fans who’ve stayed with him through his grapples with insecurity and hubris, with Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry Buss. When someone suggested that Laker loyalists might take offense to his repeated reasoning that a gold medal trumps a title, Bryant bristled.
“So what,” he sniffed. “So what. If they can’t understand that, they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s that simple. You’re playing for your country. There’s nobody in L.A. that wants to win more than me. If they want to take that as disrespectful, that’s silly. Everybody knows in L.A. that I’m the most competitive person – ever. Nobody wants to win a championship for the Lakers more than I do. Nobody. But playing for your country is something entirely different.”
Perhaps Bryant believes this is true, but that’s easy for him. He has three rings. Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley have gold medals, but still speak of such emptiness over never winning it all in the NBA. Jason Kidd is working on his second gold, but you can bet he’d give them both back to make an improbable run to a title with the Dallas Mavericks next June.
With a most un-Jordanesque performance in the NBA Finals, Bryant sidestepped harsh criticism upon losing the championship to the Boston Celtics. This time, the odds are on his side. He’s surrounded with the American’s most complete and prepared team since Barcelona, and he knows well that should Team USA win, he’ll be hailed the hero. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were on site for that American debacle four years ago, but Bryant was nowhere near Athens. Here he comes now, a savior, the most redeemed of the Redeem Team.
As much as anything though, these Games promise to be a salvation for Bryant. This is a chance for him to undergo yet one more transformation in a chameleon career of reinvention. In an election year, he’s deftly cast himself as the proud American with the worldly perspective. When Shaquille O’Neal rapped that “Kobe couldn’t do (it) without me,” Bryant played the part of the grownup, refusing to be baited into that un-winnable foolery.
Ultimately, motives are never so simple with Bryant, agendas never so pure. All his life, he’s worked the angles. He’s manipulated the circumstance. In the end, he’s conquered all. Someone asked Bryant about showing mercy in these Games, some restraint, and he just nodded side to side.
“You demolish them,” Bryant insisted. “This is what we do. This is what got me here.”
Back home, that’s what’s made some people so unsure of him. Yes, he demolishes them all. Now, he’s making a bid for his most fascinating feat of all. All at once, basketball’s most confounding contradiction has come to crush the world, and come to embrace it.