LAS VEGAS – Kobe Bryant wanted desperately to pull that No. 27 Team USA jersey over his head Friday afternoon and cleanse himself of a self-mutilating summer. No star in the sport goes greater distances to constantly recreate and recast himself, and his arrival as a savior of sorts for a broken Olympic basketball program offers a measure of redemption.
"It means everything," Bryant said of covering himself in those colors, but it wasn't long until he found himself under a harsh line of questioning at the start of a three-day Team USA minicamp at UNLV. When offered a chance over and over to clarify his intentions with the Los Angeles Lakers – does he want to stay or go? – Bryant refused to unclutter a most confusing summer.
He had a chance to say that he would attend Lakers training camp but wouldn't do it.
He had a chance to say that he no longer wanted a trade but balked.
"I understand the interest, but I don't want to be a distraction (to Team USA)," Bryant said.
All that he did allow was that he wished his bizarre, late-May run of radio interviews hadn't happened. Initially, he insisted that he wanted out of Los Angeles due to the front office's inability to construct a contender around him. Within hours, he backed down from his trade request.
He ripped owner Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak and privately angered Jerry West for demanding his return as Lakers emperor. Through it all, Bryant undid the public goodwill that he had built back up with a tirade that he says now, "If I had to go back and do things differently, I would have."
For now, Bryant is determined to blanket himself in the red, white and blue, which desperately needs him to win a gold medal in Beijing next summer. Bryant told coach Mike Krzyzewski and Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo that he wanted to be assigned the best player on each opposing team to defend. The U.S. had great perimeter finishers in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade a year ago when they lost to Greece in the world championships, but Bryant is the kind of two-way talent this program is dying to have on its side.
"There's a toughness to Kobe, an edge," Colangelo said. "And that's something we didn't have last year."
Bryant will play for Team USA in the FIBA Americas Championship (from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2) at the Thomas and Mack Center here as part of the roster that will be finalized after this weekend's camp. With several injuries to players, including Wade, Chris Paul and Carlos Boozer, Bryant finds himself needed to make an impact fast this summer.
"He's like a little kid in his enthusiasm to play," Krzyzewski said.
If nothing else, the red, white and blue in Vegas gives Bryant a breather out of his purple-and-gold mess back in Los Angeles.
Fifteen years ago, new Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo was an assistant with Krzyzewski on Chuck Daly's original Dream Team staff. Carlesimo was back to watch Team USA practice with a different agenda: to watch his genius young talent, Kevin Durant, the Sonics' future franchise star.
"This is like taking a tutorial with all the chairmen of every department before your freshman year," Carlesimo said. "To just have an opportunity to be with these great players, it's phenomenal for him."
Carlesimo has loved getting to know Durant and marveled over Durant's desire to be a part of a winner. When he saw his coach walk into practice Friday, Durant ran over to excitedly detail how the Sonics' rookie league team at the Rocky Mountain Revue had won without him. What's more, Carlesimo was thrilled with the acquisition of Suns veteran forward Kurt Thomas, who was traded to Seattle on Friday.
"To me, he's like one of those ultimate pros," Carlesimo said.
AROUND TEAM USA
• When Colangelo opened the team meeting on Thursday night with the 17 assembled players and coaching staff, he reminded everyone that there was just one gold medal in the room and it belonged to 2000 Olympian Jason Kidd.
The Nets guard is 34-0 in international competition, and upon hearing Colangelo's proclamation, he turned to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and said, "Don't mess with that. I want to stay undefeated."
• As for Anthony, he insisted that after his 2003 draft classmates (Wade and James) made the NBA finals in back-to-back years that, "This year is my turn."
• Krzyzewski on the program's roster changes: "There really are four major additions – the two point guards in Jason and Chauncey (Billups), with Kobe, and Amare (Stoudemire). Amare, even though you don't think of him as an older player, he is an older player. He's got something to prove. The younger guys are older, too – (Chris) Bosh is better, Dwight Howard is better, LeBron is better, Carmelo is better. They're all better, and the whole thing raises up."