Back in February, which feels like years ago given all that's happened since, it seemed like the NBA was trying to crown Dwyane Wade its new king. He was everywhere you looked during All-Star weekend, peering down from billboards and buildings, blending into the Las Vegas landscape as if he were Wayne Newton or Danny Gans.
That made Kobe Bryant play harder. It may have been an exhibition game to everyone else, but for him, the 2007 All-Star Game was a chance to send a message.
|Make no mistake about it: Kobe Bryant is the show for Team USA. (Getty Images)|
Because he could.
Those memories came rushing back watching Bryant during his first action for the U.S. National Team last month. Back in Las Vegas, scrimmaging against other members of Team USA in a game that came down to the final few possessions, Bryant nailed three huge jumpers over the likes of LeBron James and Tayshaun Prince to deliver victory. It wasn't that he made good on one-on-one situations that was special, because we've all grown used to watching him take over games throughout the years, but it was surreal to see guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant clearing out for anybody.
For Kobe, they stood aside and watched him work. Bryant came through, then ensured his team's win by locking up LeBron on the final possession. The king of the lions marked his territory.
This is his Team USA.
Wade, rehabilitating from offseason surgery, is out of sight. Bryant has a stage to shine on, and although there will be 11 NBA superstars alongside him when the FIBA Americas Championships tip off on Wednesday, you can already tell he's going to have the starring role in this tournament. If push were to come to shove, and the U.S. were forced to rely on a final possession to win a game at these FIBAs, you just know Mike Krzyzewski would call for everyone to step out of the way and let Kobe work. It's merited.
You may not like him or some of his past transgressions, but if we're strictly talking basketball, he's the most talented athlete to grace the game since Michael Jordan. He's been at this for over a decade, and despite the fact he's never won an MVP, or that his Lakers have become an afterthought come June, he's still recognized by his peers as the best player on the planet.
On Thursday, Bryant will turn 29 years old, and he'll celebrate by playing in his second international game against the U.S. Virgin Islands. He'll rightfully wear a No. 10 jersey, indicative of his stance as the most gifted on his team. This is a soccer reference, but Bryant is aware of the significance the number Pele made famous around the world.
Since we're talking numbers, Bryant's switch to No. 24 in L.A. was, according to him, expected to usher in the second half of his career. Although the change did help elevate him back to No. 1 in jersey sales, it did little to change his Lakers' fortunes, hence the June mid-career crisis/trade demand.
For the next three weeks, Bryant can concentrate on winning a championship again before making his next move. He won't talk about his future with the Lakers, offering no clues on where he currently stands following his declaration that we would never see him in an L.A. uniform again. This event will provide a much-needed diversion.
He'll be out there, as much one of the guys as he can be, slicing up some poor Uruguayan. He's lost over 15 pounds and might be in the best shape of his career, so maybe this will wind up as an audition of sorts. Chicago's John Paxson should be tuning in. Perhaps he'll send a message to the Lakers that they had better get him Jermaine O'Neal or miss out on the rest of No. 24's championship-chasing journey.
No matter who receives Bryant's subliminal ploys, they will all be cloaked by the flag, welcome additions to a Team USA that has badly needed his services over the years. This will be good for his soul, not to mention his image. The where-to-from-here is on hold, and the mystery of whether he'll report to L.A.'s training camp this October will have to remain just that until the time comes. Bryant won't upstage the national team's pursuit of an Olympic bid by making any more bold declarations, and it sounds like he's basking in playing for Coach K, his would-be coach had he ever seriously considered going to college.
It seems fitting that Krzyzewski would be along for this portion of Bryant's ride, because this event has to feel like a fantasy camp of sorts given all the other things going on in his life. Who ever heard of going to Vegas for solace?
You can see why these FIBAs may wind up as therapeutic as a trip to Punta Cana. He gets to do what he loves in a relatively pressure-free environment, surrounded by teammates he respects for a change.
Best of all, he gets to shine brightest, back on board a winner. He'd better enjoy it, because the real world comes knocking again in early September. That's when the best player in the world will probably have to go back to being disgruntled employee No. 1 at his dead-end job or risk looking like even more of a villain in his efforts to get out.