Kobe Bryant In Rio?

At the close of their mini-camp, USA Basketball held a scrimmage last night. It capped off three days of light workouts and training as 34 NBA players gathered to impress USA Basketball’s Managing Director and Chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. Together they are jointly selecting the Olympic team in Rio in 2016.

Now that the mini-camp is over what is next? According to Colangelo, an Olympic roster will not be announced until late June 2016. It’s wise. Injuries happen. An additional ten months will give coach Mike Krzyzewski time to evaluate younger players throughout the season as a roster is fleshed together. Colangelo noted, “we’re not putting together an All-Star team.” This was in response to a question as to how he would turn down previous Olympic champions and replace them with inexperienced Olympians. The goal for Colangelo and Krzyzewski is to field a team capable of defending the 2012 gold medal.

Andre Igoudala was absent from the mini-camp for personal reasons but Coach K. mentioned he would be in the mix for a roster spot.

Someone else in the mix is Kobe Bryant.

Post-game Jerry Colangelo said of Bryant, “If he had his druthers, he would love to ride off into the sunset playing one more time and winning the gold medal. ” Colangelo also added that Bryant didn’t want a roster spot saved for him, he wanted to earn it which is fitting with who Kobe Bryant has been for much of his career.

But the paradox that awaits this season for Bryant is, strangely, Bryant himself. Post-2012, he has been a testimony for injury sickness. He tore his rotator cuff last season in training camp and essentially played 35 games with one arm. Before that there was a broken knee and a torn Achilles. No one, much less Bryant, knows who he is right now as a basketball player.

If Bryant earns a spot on the team that goes to Rio it won’t be charity. But if he is grandfathered in because for the past 20 years Kobe has redefined will, persistence, stubbornness, perfection and achievement, then the crowds that will gather in Rio, packed to see him one last time, will gather to honor the United States quest for a gold medal as a regressive form of sentimentality. The last goodbye will be punctuated every time Bryant takes the court, beautiful theater to be sure, but not exactly the Olympic arc of selflessness and achievement.

In 1992, Larry Bird was on the U.S. Olympic team even though he could barely play through the pain of a degenerative back condition. He gave what he gave and it didn’t take away from the rest of the team even as it was clear this was the last sighting of Larry Joe Bird. The 1992 Olympic team had so many other stars and Michael Jordan blocked out the sun.

There is something to be said for Olympic glory in all of its forms, for it taking the shape of Carlos Boozer and Michael Redd in 2008 who rarely played and for Kobe Bryant in 2012 who played less minutes than Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Kevin Durant. Basketball as an aesthetic game is a tapestry with a multitude of changing storylines.

In 2008, Jason Kidd was 35 years old. Desperate for leadership, Kidd was a lifeline, that calm in a storm USA Basketball clung to as their bronze medal finish in 2004 was still a moiled stain. The U.S. wasn’t feared abroad because virtually every country played the game now. At home, NBA players were fatigued and disinterested. Enter Jason Kidd with his toughness and commitment and vision. He was a big brother to his younger teammates who hung on his every word and it didn’t matter that he played the fewest amount of minutes than anyone. He was part of the culture change and responsible for the gold medal win.

But so much has changed in 7 years. USA Basketball is in a much more profitable and envied place. In 2008, they needed Kobe Bryant in the gold medal game to beat Spain. In 2016, they don’t need Kobe Bryant at all. And Kobe Bryant doesn’t need them either, not really. He has two medals, historic accomplishments, five titles. He set the path for NBA players in China and abroad. He can play his last NBA game and then leave it all behind knowing he did his part.

Still, the idea of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant together one last time, the best players of their generation who never met each other in the playoffs, on one last team, in one last city, for one last cause, to slay one last international team, can’t be understated. It would be a fairy tale ending of sorts, Kobe Bryant walking through the door for the last time with a glint of gold hanging around his neck. Hello. Goodbye.


photo via Wikimedia.org