What Kobe’s won is better than gold
He never wore a swimsuit, but nobody made a bigger splash.
He never ran a lap, yet nobody traveled farther.
The Beijing Olympics may initially be known for Michael Phelps’ strength and Usain Bolt’s speed, but, among American sports fans, no memory will prove as indelible as Kobe Bryant’s redemption.
It’s here. It’s done. It will be officially completed on Sunday when the U.S. reclaims a gold medal against overmatched Spain, but, in terms of the one thing Bryant had lost, it’s already happened.
The Olympics will give Phelps and Bolt only fame.
The Olympics have given Bryant the more enduring gift of respect.
Seven games down, one remaining, and longtime Bryant watchers are hearing the most unusual things.
Players speaking glowingly of him. Players speaking kindly of him.
Players who once universally distrusted him, well, they like him. They really like him.
The sort of All-Star team that once froze him out now follows him, gaining energy from his defense, making it their mantra.
Every game, Bryant has been the first player in a defensive stance, the first guy guarding the opponent in the backcourt, squatting and straining alone in front of four guys who have no choice but to imitate.
If this team could have only one passport, Bryant playing defense would be the photo.
“He gives it his all on every second of every play. You see that and you’re like, you’ve got to do the same thing,” said center Chris Bosh. “You see a guy playing that hard, you’ll do anything not to let him down.”
The sort of smart players who once shunned him now actually learn from him, drawing inspiration from his preparation.
Every game, he’s the player pointing to other players, directing them on both sides of the court, counseling them, cheering them.
“You hear a lot of things about Kobe, but I had no idea he was such a basketball junkie,” said guard Chris Paul. “He studies all the film, talks basketball all the time, knows everything.”
Finally, the sort of nice-guy players who once ignored him now treat him as an equal.
“We’re good friends, so none of what he does surprises me,” said center Carlos Boozer.
Notice something interesting about that sentence?
In my memory, it’s the first time that anyone has ever been quoted saying that he and Bryant were “good friends.”
The loner has become an embraced leader, and you could see it again Friday in a 101-81 rout of defending Olympic champion Argentina at Wukesong Arena.
Before the game, the handful of players who had competed on the embarrassing 2004 Olympics team in Athens pleaded with them for revenge.
Bryant listened, and came out crazy.
He scored the first points on a reverse follow-up layup. He made the first defensive stop while swarming Manu Ginobili into a three-point miss.
He threw the first big elbow of the game, shoving Ginobili right in front of a whistle-chewing official, setting the tone for an hourlong scrum.
And then, he ran the first player off the court, chasing Ginobili to the bench with what appeared to be a sprained ankle less than seven minutes into the game.
Neither Ginobili, nor the Argentine chances, returned.
“Kobe was the guy; he was like, ‘I want to guard Manu,’ ” Paul said. “He always wants to guard the other team’s best player.”
It’s one thing for him to say that in a Lakers locker room, on a team where he has to guard the opposing star.
It’s another thing to say it in a room filled with stars, where he knows that concentrating on defense will hurt his scoring, and that volunteering for anything can only bring embarrassment.
“The things he does out there, they’re not about putting the ball in the basket,” said Carmelo Anthony. “They’re about his presence.”
Notice something interesting about that sentence?
How many times does a teammate compliment Bryant on something that doesn’t involve numbers? Even when his Lakers teammates talk about how Bryant won’t let them lose, they are talking about his scoring.
As perhaps the ultimate compliment, Bryant’s teammates here are raving about him in spite of his numbers.
He is only the third-leading scorer on the team, at 14.3 points a game. He ranks fourth in steals. He ranks sixth in assists. Eighth in rebounding.
It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the perception.
His teammates can’t believe this is the Kobe Bryant who has, at various times in this career, cast himself as heartless and selfish.
His teammates see him only as the leader of a defense that has scored 84 more points off turnovers than their opponents and 91 more points off fastbreaks.
Notice something interesting about this column?
As recently as a year ago, you couldn’t write a story about Kobe Bryant’s impact on a team without talking to Kobe Bryant. His teammates never had much to say, and when they did, they seemed to say it with fear.
This time, though, there are no Bryant quotes. There is not enough room. His teammates said plenty.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke @latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.