The first time he touches the ball, Kobe Bryant looks to pass. His first instinct involves sprinting back on defense. Most of his scoring opportunities come off backdoor cuts or swing passes.
This isn’t the Kobe Bryant most people know. As a Laker, Bryant takes the game-winning shots. On good nights, he scores in rapid fire succession and lifts his team to victory. On bad nights, Bryant does so in the same fashion without involving teammates.
But Bryant has a different role for the 2012 London Olympics. Through five exhibition games, Bryant’s effort to drop 16 pounds, his defense, deference toward teammates and role as elder statesmen have glowed brighter than the 8.2 points on 40% shooting and two assists he’s averaged thus far. And it’s a responsibility he’ll likely carry once Olympic play begins Sunday against France.
Make no mistake. Team USA basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo told me a few months ago a key thing to keep in mind about Bryant: “He’s one of the top two or three guys we’ve ever seen who loves to compete. He’s not going to change his game.”
Bryant doesn’t compromise his competitive and scoring instincts. See, Bryant will still seek those moments to further cement his greatness, such as when he scored 13 fourth-quarter points to help Team USA capture the gold medal over Spain in the 2008 Beijing Games. But Bryant will change his approach from a tactical standpoint. As outlined in the book, “The Return of the Gold,” consider Bryant’s reaction when Colangelo courted him about joining the so-called “Redeem Team” shortly after the Lakers star posted a career-high 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006.
“What if I said to you that we just want you to pass the ball?” Colagenlo asked.
“I’ll do whatever you want,” Bryant said without blinking.
The perennial All-Star guard showed that meant much more than words.
Colangelo vividly recalled Bryant spending practices diving for loose balls while arriving early and staying late during weightlifting and film sessions. In his first opportunity, at the Tournament of the Americas in 2007, Bryant set the tone depicting his selfless play. He tipped a ball away from Venezuelan guard Greivis Vasquez. He dived on the court to grab the loose ball. Bryant then stole the next pass and started a fastbreak. Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski later played the clip endlessly before the entire team.
In turn, Bryant heard something endearing to his ears.
“Coach K, one of the things he was stressing to me all the time was to be who I am, to be a scorer,” Bryant said in 2008. "I never had a coach come up to me and say, ‘We want you to shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.’ ”
As a result, Bryant still kept that defensive responsibility while averaging 15 points on 60.8% shooting. The Lakers star has joked such a scoring spree won’t come until later in the tournament so he can emulate Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Perhaps that’s true. After all, Carmelo Anthony led a first-half comeback against Spain this week by scoring 23 of his 27 points before intermission. Kevin Durant’s 27 points, including a flurry of late-game three-pointers, held off a surging Argentina team. LeBron James has offered a team-leading 18.6 points on 50% shooting. Unlike most times with the Lakers, Team USA’s fortunes won’t rest on Bryant carrying the offense.
So for now, Bryant has willingly adjusted. He takes on a role familiar to him from the 2008 Olympics, but foreign to him elsewhere. But that’s not going to matter once he wears a second gold medal around his neck.