Kobe Bryant continues to pester Pau Gasol.
This time it has nothing to do with playing more aggressively, weathering endless trade rumors or giving him the ball. It has everything to do with Bryant wanting to beat Gasol in the 2012 London Olympics.
In the locker room, Bryant constantly reminded Gasol of Team USA’s 118-107 gold-medal win over Spain in the 2008 Olympics. Bryant brought up his four-point play with 3:10 remaining, which prompted him to hold his finger to his lips. Any time Gasol interacted with his Spanish teammates after a Lakers’ game, Bryant interrupted the conversation to remind them that Team USA would defend its gold medal.
Those conversations have continued since then. They likely won’t stop leading into the tournament’s beginning (July 29) or when the two teams could meet again in the gold medal game (Aug. 11).
“A little but nothing unexpected,” Gasol wrote in an email to The Times in regards to how much Bryant has talked trash with him. “We all know how competitive Kobe is and how bad he likes to win. But let’s see if our teams get to play each other during the tournament.”
The last time they met up, it only reminded Gasol of “the need to play at our highest level for the entire game.”
Spain appeared whiny during the game by throwing a towel on the court to protest a non-call and earned two technical fouls in the final minute. The U.S. team never trailed in the second half and secured the win through an onslaught of clutch shots, including Bryant’s 13 fourth-quarter points. The efforts both Gasol and Rudy Fernandez provided by combining for 43 points went to waste.
Four years removed from that, a few variables have evolved.
Spain’s core roster featuring Gasol, his brother, Marc, Fernandez, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro experienced plenty of success the past six years, They won gold in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and 2009 and 2011 FIBA European Championship. Spain also earned two silver medals from the 2007 FIBA European Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Last year, Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka joined the Spanish team after becoming a native citizen, and has impressed Gasol with his “incredible work ethic.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. features a continuously fledgling roster.
Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade will sit out this year’s games because of a slew of injuries. So, too, will Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who is scheduled to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee after suffering the injury last week at a U.S. Olympic team practice. Team USA features an array of talent, including Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. That lineup led USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to give this proclamation to reporters in Las Vegas, including The Times’ Mike Bresnahan: “We think we’re deeper. We think we’re better.”
Still that doesn’t match the stability Spain boasts with its roster.
“We have a really talented team, but I do think our talent is a little different from the one of the US National Team,” Gasol said. “Hopefully our experience as being together for many years now we’ll be a big plus for us.”
Gasol still sounded cautiously optimistic.
He rattled off several teams that worry him leading into the London Olympics, including the U.S., Russia, Lithuania, France, Argentina and Brazil. Spain will play without star point guard Ricky Rubio, who is currently recovering from surgery on his torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. And even if Ibaka proclaimed Spain has an equal amount of talent as the U.S., Gasol only has to look back four years ago on how Team USA’s athleticism and team play appeared overwhelming.
“It’s really difficult to win a gold medal in the Olympics,” Gasol said. “There are always very dangerous teams. I believe we have a chance, of course, but we will have to earn it once the tournament starts. It’s a medal that nobody is going to put it on a platter for you. We are going to have to take it.”
To do that, Gasol and his Spanish teammates will likely have to go through Bryant and the U.S. team. They know because Bryant’s constantly reminding them about it.