This forthcoming NBA season could be the final one for nearly 37-year-old Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. However, it looks unlikely that Kobe will get many opportunities to go out on a high note with the Lakers clearly in rebuilding mode. Even if Kobe stays healthy, he may have to settle for a 35-point night on national TV as his final moment of triumph. Given his history, that’s a relatively minor achievement to cap such a stellar career.
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Yet there is hope for a glorious ride into the sunset if Kobe joins USA Basketball at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. While Bryant no longer ranks among the 12 best American players in the NBA, he has the name recognition and broad respect to nab a place on the national team roster. Winning a third-straight Olympic gold would give him another major achievement on his way out of the sport.
True to form, though, Kobe doesn’t want to head to Rio as a token legend. According to USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, he only wants a spot on the team if he earns it. From Dave McMenamin for ESPN.com (via PBT):
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said Thursday at the conclusion of Team USA’s minicamp that he has had a conversation with the Los Angeles Lakers guard about that very scenario and has not ruled out Bryant for the 12-man roster next summer.
“I was quoted on Kobe,” Colangelo said after USA Basketball’s intrasquad scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center. “In response to a question about him, I said it would be a great story if he did [play in Rio].
“And so, he also mentioned to me in a private conversation that if he had his druthers, he would love to ride off into the sunset playing one more time and winning the gold medal. And that would be the end. But he was very quick to say, ‘But, I don’t want a spot. I need to earn the spot. I need to be capable of playing at that level to be considered.’ And I said, ‘You got that. That’s always there for you, Kobe.'”
From an outsider’s perspective, there appears to be no good reason for Kobe to make Team USA as one of the squad’s dozen stars and/or Duke alums. With guards like Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook consigned to the bench and a group of wings that includes James Harden and turns Klay Thompson into a glorified role player, there is little room for a player who will turn 38 years old just a few days after the tournament’s gold medal game. Only those who remain eternally convinced of Kobe’s supremacy could see him as an essential part of the national team. He even had a relatively minor role in 2012, when he ranked sixth on the team in minutes per game, and a year before age and injuries began to limit his abilities and availability.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to imagine Kobe making the team on the basis of merit, if only because Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have not exactly shied away from claiming intangible contributions as crucial to their project. For instance, starting point guard Jason Kidd didn’t just serve as a passing fulcrum during his limited minutes at the 2008 Olympics in London — he also provided a stabilizing presence and helped instill a culture of selflessness. The same goes for Kobe, whose sense of commitment in 2008 was seen as a major reason that Team USA was able to reestablish the global dominance that has persisted over the last four major international tournaments.
Based on those precedents, it’s possible to imagine Kobe making the squad in the role of an elder statesman who can come off the bench to rescue Team USA from any slip-ups caused by a lack of focus or determination (especially if LeBron James opts not to play next summer). It’s not clear that the roster actually needs such a player or that Kobe is uniquely suited to provide such skills, but Colangelo and Krzyzewski have consistently sold their version of USA Basketball as an organization that must be reliant on more than talent alone. No active player has an aura such as that of Kobe, and it would be relatively easy to sell his inclusion on the basis of his ineffable qualities. (It probably doesn’t hurt that Kobe figures to be a longtime endorser for team sponsor Nike.)
To be clear, his presence in Rio would almost certainly be a product of narrative and not his observable talents. But seeing Kobe back in red, white, and blue would also be pretty fun, because the sport sees very few legends of his stature. Fans can acknowledge Bryant’s shortcomings while simultaneously appreciating that he becomes much more interesting on the biggest stages. That relationship between superstar and narrative does not have to be seen as artificial. It can just as easily serve as a fitting end for a figure who has often defied the logic of quantitative analysis.
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