Bryant Deflects the Spotlight

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

LAS VEGAS, Aug. 22 -- Kobe Bryant doesn't want the FIBA Americas Championship to be about him. He has consistently tried to deflect attention by saying that he only wants to blend in and be one of the guys. The Los Angeles Lakers' star refuses to spend his time here clarifying his on-again, off-again trade demand earlier this summer for fear of becoming a distraction to the team's goal of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But the fact remains that Bryant cannot escape his perch. Rising stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are carving out their places in the league and Jason Kidd brings an impeccable international record, but Bryant was one of the first players Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the senior team, sought out when he made the blueprint for the national program. Bryant has more NBA championship rings (three) than Team USA's other 11 players combined. He is also the player considered by his peers as the best in the game.

"You're around a very elite group right now and you can still see his greatness," Detroit Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups said. "The same can be said about a few more players, but Kobe, he's the cream of the crop."

Bryant practically took the reins of the team at an intrasquad exhibition game here last month, when he made a defensive stop against James in the closing seconds and nailed the game-winning jumper. But he insisted that he isn't concerned about being the face of the team. "Honestly, I don't give it much thought," Bryant said.

Bryant made his much-anticipated debut for USA Basketball in a 112-69 defeat of Venezuela on Wednesday night at Thomas & Mack Center. His opportunity had been delayed by injuries and off-court troubles the past four years. He was chosen for the team that won the Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico in 2003, but withdrew because of surgeries on his knee and shoulder. He was expected to be a part of the 2004 Olympics before sexual assault charges in Colorado scuttled those plans. Another knee surgery forced him to withdraw before training camp began for the FIBA World Championship last summer.

"I've been waiting for this for a while," Bryant said. "To finally put on the uniform and run out there and compete in a game where it's for real. It's special."

Bryant said he watched Team USA finish third in Japan last summer from his home and was "upset just like everybody else. It's like watching your brothers out there. It's your country and to watch them struggle like that is very difficult. Coming here, myself as well as the new players, we just want to contribute as much as we can to try to not have that happen again."

Bryant led the NBA in scoring for the second consecutive season, but the Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. His offseason was highlighted by his confounding public trade demand, in which he expressed his desire to leave, then stay, in Los Angeles on the same day. He has since blamed his outburst on frustration and decided to handle his differences with the Lakers behind closed doors, while offering only vague answers -- or none at all -- when asked about his future. He told ESPN last week, "That's water under the bridge to me."

Bryant has instead placed all of his energy into representing his country, and said he probably pushed his body hardest in preparation for this event. He lost about 19 pounds before the minicamp in July, and has stayed away from pepperoni pizza and fast food so long that he said he "can't remember the last time" he had some. His diet has mostly been limited to fish and vegetables.

"You start knocking on 30, the reality sets in a little bit. Your metabolism isn't what it used to be," said Bryant, who turns 29 on Thursday. "It's a part of trying to figure out how do you stay in tip-top condition or stay ready to play. If that means not eating fast food all the time, that's what you've got to do."

U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski guaranteed Bryant, James and Anthony starting spots, with other point guards and centers rotating in. But when the team canceled practice and held voluntary workouts on Sunday, Bryant was the only veteran in the gym alongside rookies Jeff Green and Kevin Durant.

"He works out on his own in the morning, at night. It's pretty impressive," said Mike D'Antoni, an assistant with USA Basketball and head coach of the Phoenix Suns. "He's really focused, always. It just kind of carries over."

After Bryant won the most valuable player award at the All-Star Game here last February, D'Antoni marveled at Bryant's competitiveness, even during a lopsided game. "His intensity is refreshing, it's great. No matter who we're playing, what we're doing he's competing," D'Antoni said. "His desire to be the best player in the game, his desire to win a gold medal, his desire to get the Lakers to win a title, that cannot be questioned. He probably takes it to the highest level you can take it."

Said Colangelo: "I knew Kobe would be a tremendous addition to our team this year, knowing that he couldn't perform last summer. He made it clear he would do anything he was asked to do to make this thing successful. His attitude has been unbelievable."

Bryant was asked where a loss in this tournament would rank. "I'm not into ifs," Bryant said. "We believe this sport is ours to dominate. We want to claim back what we believe is rightfully ours. It's not going to be easy at all. I'm sure there are plenty of countries that are going to have something to say about that."

And the spotlight will be on what Bryant says in return.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company