Kobe Bryant the elder statesman is an Olympian worth cheering

Mike Wise
Columnist July 28, 2012

Inches from the best basketball player in the world since Michael Jordan, trapped in a scrum by a pushy Italian and some ornery chap from Russia named Slava, there was only one thing to do at the Kobe Bryantinterview session.

Ask Mamba everything you’ve been wanting to ask Mamba. And then ask Mamba more, until he can’t take the pressure anymore.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“Were you surprised that David Stern didn’t nix the Steve Nash trade and send him to the Clippers?”

“I wasn’t surprised,” Bryant said, laughing. “But I think Chris [Paul] was, though.”

Well played.

“Are you worried LeBron and NBC will team up for ‘The Decision II,’ in which LeBron said he is defecting, that, ‘I’m taking my talents to Spain?’ ”

Looking to his left at LeBron James, his Team USA teammate, shaking his head, trying not to bust up, Mamba composed himself and said, “No, I think we’re good with LeBron.”

What? You wanted depth? It’s the Olympics. We’re supposed to go all Sam Donaldson on the Kobester, continue interrogating him like Craig Sager about the Lakers, which he gets grilled about 82 times a day during the regular season?

Nuh-uh. Can’t do it.

Bryant’s the senior member of Team USA now, a 33-year-old veteran of 16 NBA seasons, nearly 30,000 points, two Olympic teams, two creaky knees and numerous aging joints, joints that whisper their expiration dates to a tone-deaf, five-time NBA champion still pining for a Jordan-esque sixth.

“I’m just going to, like, hold on for dear life?” Bryant said when I asked if he would stick around till he won another title. “I’m not the type of guy to do that. I’ll give you the great effort, my best effort, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

After a slight pause, a coy smile crossed his mug: “But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t.”

Bryant knows this is it. Hinting again he may retire after his current contract expires in two years (“That’s what I’m thinking, but I haven’t had any serious thoughts about it,” he said), Bryant knows his days on the international stage number fewer than 12. He can sense it. To see him march into Olympic Stadium on Friday night during the Opening Ceremonies to the London Games, apart from his millionaire hoops peers and in the thick of the lesser-known members of the U.S. Olympic team, was to view a much different athlete than the kid who jumped to the NBA from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High at 17.

“Yes, I have started receiving social security checks,” Bryant quipped. “They call me the O.G. That’s what I am around here.”

“Original gangster?”

“One hundred percent,” Bryant said. “That’s what they call me.”

One day you’re a new-jack kid in this game, waving the old heads off when they set a pick on your defender. You’re breaking ankles and taking names en route to the rim. The next, you’re . . . dieting.

“I used to eat junk food all the time and I started feeling bloated, sluggish,” a sinewy Mamba said, confirming he had dropped 16 pounds since the end of the NBA season. “Every time I wanted to grab that In-N-Out burger, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Throughout his nearly hour-long Q&A with the world, Bryant never bristled, snapped back or took a thinly veiled shot of any sort, even when reporters wanted to rehash the Dream Team debate yet again. He just smiled and smiled some more, saying he had more in common with James now that the Miami Heat are champions, reaffirming his belief that all NBA players should be eligible for the Olympics, instead of going to the David Stern-preferred 23-and-under idea with two wild-card players to be added to the roster.

“Dumb, stupid,” he said. “Not all guys want to go, but you should at least be given the opportunity for the players who do want to play.”

Mostly, Bryant took in his surroundings and said he planned to make a lot of mental imprints the next two weeks. The wise sage, who finally understands what’s important and what’s not.

“This time around I want to do some of the major sports, but I also want to see some of the ones that don’t get the recognition,” he said of his London experience. “I want to go see a little bit of archery, weightlifting, wrestling. I definitely want to check out some gymnastics, the diving, it’s a long list.

“That’s definitely my wish list. Whether or not I can pull it off remains to be seen.’’

Asked if there was a certain athlete he wanted badly to see, he mentioned five-time world champion cyclist Victoria Pendleton from Britain. “I would love to go see her and try and get her sixth. That would be pretty cool.”

You know what I was thinking when he said that? Fewer than half of those reporters had even heard the name “Victoria Pendleton” before Bryant blurted it out; the guy genuinely wants to see her ride her bike.

Before the scrum broke up, someone asked if this all-star collection of players had a name yet. “That’s your job to come up with a story for this team,” Mamba said, surveying the media jackals at his feet. “You came up with the Redeem Team [in 2008], which is a pretty good name.’’

“We don’t have a name for this team yet.”

Hmmm. Until they prove themselves, how about “The Seem Team?” They could be great, but we don’t know.

Or, given unselfish players such as James, Paul, Deron Williams and Kevin Durant, this crew appears to be the real deal as far as passers go — not just one-on-one playground kings. So maybe, “The Supreme Team.”

Personally, seeing the player who will turn 34 next month in his last Olympic go-round fully grasp the Games and their meaning, understanding how his role as a shut-down defender and leader is going to be central to another Team USA gold medal, why not give into cornball sentimentality and just call them “The Bean Team” — after The Black Mamba’s middle name?

Because it’s his squad as much as anyone’s, just as it was once Kobe Bryant’s league more than anyone’s.

Either way, as the career of the greatest ’baller since Michael winds down, here’s hoping O.G. never stands for Old Guy.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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