Real American Hero?

by August 29, 2006

by Lang Whitaker

Team USA was in Las Vegas, and things were starting to come together. They’d put in a week of practice, taken a few days off, then reconvened in order to put in the final tune-ups before jetting off to Asia for the World Basketball Championships. They were practicing every day, and on this night they had a special scrimmage set against Puerto Rico.

And then Kobe Bryant showed up, and all eyes were on he.

Kobe was supposed to be part of the team from the get, but he’d gone under knife for knee surgery just weeks before practice began, surprising everyone involved with USA Basketball. And now he’d shown up to watch the team play a scrimmage. Kobe sat behind the basket next to USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo, his agent just behind him.

When the game ended, Kobe walked out across the court and into the interview room, where he faced about a dozen media members and answered questions about his injury and what he thought about Team USA.

It was a strange scene. Colangelo sat next to him on the podium but didn’t say a word, like an overprotective guardian or parent. When Kobe was asked about traveling to Asia with the team, to just be around and build relationships, Kobe said that he’d talked about it with Coach K and Colangelo, and they’d all decided it was best he stay behind and continue his rehab. About ten minutes later, Colangelo volunteered that Kobe was actually going to Asia at Nike’s behest and he would be joining the team there. If this information came through some secret radio broadcast or a text message, I’m not sure, but Kobe nodded along, as if he knew this the entire time.

And that was it. That night, Kobe wasn’t hanging around the hotel with all the Team USA players, and the next day he wasn’t at the game.

Right now, Team USA is in Asia, where they barely managed to beat Italy, only after Carmelo Anthony got hot from long distance. So shouldn’t the addition next summer of Kobe Bryant, maybe the most prolific scorer in basketball today, be a no-brainer? Well…

It’s an interesting call. On the one hand, Kobe can score like nobody’s business, and when the Lakers aren’t letting him rest against a lesser guard, he is a tenacious defender. At the same time, teamwork and humility have never really been Kobe’s strong suits, and those are two things that are crucial when you’re playing with a bunch of other guys who are used to being the big dogs wherever they’ve played before.

That’s not to say Kobe can’t be a team player, it’s just that with the Lakers he hasn’t been asked to do that very often. Can he come in and in fit in with a team that has three captains younger than him?

Maybe Team USA can spark Kobe’s redemption in the eyes of the basketball cognoscenti who believe he cares more about self than team. Maybe the Lakers really did ask Kobe to ignore open teammates last season in order to give their team the best chance of winning. And maybe we’ll finally see what Kobe can do when he dons the USA jersey for the first time and the most talented team he will have ever played with surrounds him.

It presents an interesting conundrum for Coach K and Jerry Colangelo. If he shows up and refuses to buy into the system, would they cut him in order to keep a no-nonsense guy like Joe Johnson?

And the more relevant question is which player’s minutes would Kobe take? Carmelo’s? D-Wade’s? LeBron’s?

Right now there’s more questions than answers. But that’s why we have a comments section…