The world may have gained ground on the United States in terms of basketball skill and talent, but the U.S. still has the perfect weapon against international competition: Kobe Bryant.
When the 2012 Summer Games kick off in London, the Americans will be favored to win the men’s basketball competition but they’ll get tested by international powers such as Spain (ranked No. 2 by FIBA), Russia (3), Argentina (4), Lithuania (6), Brazil (7), and France (8).
Spain is led by the Gasol brothers (Pau and Marc), Russia has Andre Kirilenko and Tim Mozgov, Brazil boasts Leandro Barbosa, Nene and Anderson Varejao, and France is powered by Spurs star Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola are the top guns for Argentina, the 2004 Olympic gold medalists, while Lithuania features Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas and Linas Kleiza.
“It’s a big challenge for us. The rest of the world kinda feels like the gap is continuing to shorten and they feel like they can beat us,” Bryant said. “We’re a fun bunch, joking around and laughing. But we know what’s at stake and we know what we’re representing. Come Olympic time we’re going to be ready to go and going to bring back the medal to the U.S.”
Because the U.S. is not familiar with a lot of the teams they’ll face in London, Bryant believes paying extra attention to detail is very critical to the team’s approach each and every game.
“In the NBA we do a great amount of preparation,” Bryant said. “Against these teams we have to do that even more because we don’t know most of their guys.
“We really have to do our homework and get to know their tendencies.”
Bryant’s supreme confidence was so contagious around the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing he almost single-handedly made everyone forget about the catastrophic loss to Greece in the 2006 World Championship (now renamed the World Cup of Basketball).
When the 2008 Olympic team — which included LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Deron Williams, and Dwyane Wade — got pushed to the limit by Spain in the gold medal game it was Bryant who pushed right back and carried the U.S. to the finish line.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Bryant, who averaged 15 points in the Beijing Olympics. “He’ll do anything to help the team win. And in pressure moments there’s no one any better. He wants the ball or he wants to guard the ball. He was born to be in those moments, and he’s prepared himself for those moments.”
Kobe is one of the few NBA players whose game adapts seamlessly to the FIBA level. Having grown up in Italy, there’s a lot of European influence in Bryant’s game and he can play any style: inside, outside, 3-point shots, dribble drives. He also doesn’t shy away from physical play, which is a big adjustment for NBA players because of the inconsistency in officiating and the amount of contact that is allowed in FIBA tournaments.
At 33, this is most likely Bryant’s last Olympic experience. He would love to add another gold medal to go along with his five NBA championship rings. Like he previously stated, the U.S. will be challenged in London, but as long as the Black Mamba is on his game Team USA is in good hands.