Sitting by himself on the team bus Sunday, Kobe Bryant visualized what was in store for him that day.
Team USA would soon play Spain for the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, and this pregame ritual is the time Bryant visualizes the game-winning shot or a key scoring spurt he might provide to ensure victory.
It also gave Bryant time to reflect on everything that had led up to that point. He knew this would mark his second and last Olympic run. He said without any hesitation that he wouldn’t play in the 2016 Games in Brazil, considering that he turns 34 next week and possibly would be retired from the NBA by then. So he wanted to soak in everything he could.
The accomplishment remained the most important thing. Once Team USA clinched its 107-100 victory over Spain, Bryant was able to add another gold medal to his already extensive résumé, which includes five NBA championships, two Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP and a fifth-place mark on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. But it also capped a four-year run that helped shape the player Bryant is today.
As the 2008 Beijing Olympics started, Bryant was finally earning a better reputation as a reliable teammate. Frustrated that even his prolific scoring couldn’t lift the Lakers to championship contention, Bryant appeared overwhelmingly happy when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in February of ’08 from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers marched into the NBA Finals that year against Boston, but the Celtics physically overwhelmed them. In turn, Bryant kept hearing, including from Shaquille O’Neal in a battle rap, that the Black Mamba still couldn’t win without the Big Fella.
Bryant had an outlet to fuel that frustration with the 2008 Beijing team. Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski encouraged him to score, but Bryant also embraced playing a large defensive role. On a team full of superstars, this proved Bryant would willingly adjust his role because the respect level seemed high. In turn, teammates such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony respected Bryant’s work ethic. Bryant’s complementary role helped keep his body fresh and also helped him further adopt a stronger team mentality to ensure two consecutive NBA championships with the Lakers.
In 2012, Bryant reached a different crossroads.
After two early playoff exits, Bryant maintained optimism that the Lakers could still squeeze out championships before he ended his career. The acquisitions of Howard and Steve Nash validated that. But Bryant sensed his time could run out. He admitted he may retire shortly or immediately after his two-year, $58-million contract expires following the 2013-14 season. So Bryant treated his second Olympic appearance as a farewell tour.
He willingly deferred the scoring role to James, Anthony and Kevin Durant. Bryant embraced playing an elder statesman role to the next crop of NBA superstars. Bryant may have struggled in the first five games, averaging 9.4 points on 38.9% shooting. But he rightfully didn’t force too much so he could pace his way in the tournament.
That paid off once he scored 20 second-half points in Team USA’s win against Australia, which included four three-pointers in a 66-second burst. He continued that onward with double-digit efforts in Team USA’s semifinal win against Argentina (13 points) and gold-medal victory against Spain (17).
Bryant’s scoring will still be needed next season, but with a starting lineup featuring Howard, Nash and Gasol, the Lakers’ success won’t rest on Bryant having to carry the team. It will hinge on how well he tempers his scoring instincts with team play, while also maintaining his unmatched competitive mind-set.
Once Bryant officially secured his second gold medal, he brought finality to it all. Bryant hugged Krzyzewski, who also won’t return for the 2016 Olympics. Bryant embraced Gasol. He graciously let James and Durant lead the team cheers and postgame interview. And Bryant reiterated his plan to NBC Sports’ Craig Sager that this was his last Olympic stop.
“This is it,” Bryant summed up.
It proved to be one heck of a ride.