There are two unmistakable plotlines as USA Basketball gets ready for next month's Olympic qualifier. One is, "We learned from last year." The other is the presence of Kobe Bryant. The two are not unrelated.
Team USA is forced to be here because it did not prevail at last year's world championships in Japan, despite the presence of a new management team (Jerry Colangelo, Mike Krzyzewski) and a roster led by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony. This time around, with a distinctly less-imposing field and an upgraded roster, the United States needs only to finish first or second to qualify for Beijing. Given that the US has a 26-0 record in zone qualifiers, that half of Argentina's usual roster is elsewhere, and that the only other team with any cachet is Brazil, the Yanks' chances are, well, as they say here, off the books.
But, of course, to listen to the players and coaches, the future of Western civilization is at stake and, frankly, that is how it should be. The US cannot assume anything anymore in international basketball, even finishing in the top two in a qualifier on its own turf against a field that would have trouble winning the NIT. So, the 2007 team is a lot different than the 2006 team, and it starts with Bryant, who is bleeding red, white, and blue. He missed the Worlds last year because of an injury and has been pointing to this tournament ever since, his first experience with USA Basketball.
"I think he was really down in the dumps last year," Colangelo said of Bryant. "He wanted badly to play and it didn't happen for him. During the course of this year he made it very clear that this was big to him, that this was important to him."
And it is. While Bryant is indisputably the alpha male on the team, Kobe is all USA, all the time right now. So his earlier pleas for help from the Lakers, and the back-and-forth that ensued, is, for now, not up for discussion. Colangelo said simply, "It's not even a conversation piece for us. And it shouldn't be." Bryant deflected most of the Laker-related questions on the first day of media availability, saying he didn't want to be a distraction. You know, just one of the guys for now.
"I understand the interest in the [Lakers] situation, and when the time is right I will address those questions," Bryant said. "The right thing now is to handle it the right way, going forward."
So there. You won't get him dissin' Andrew Bynum (to whom he said he apologized) or wondering why USA Basketball teammate Jason Kidd didn't join him last February (because the Lakers would not surrender Bynum). He did endorse the signings of Luke Walton, Chris Mihm, and Derek Fisher, a close friend. He said he has lost 19 pounds. He admitted that if he had do it over, he would do it differently. Which means, apparently, that he wouldn't call every Los Angeles radio station to rip the Lakers.
But that's as far as he's going to go while wearing the USA shirt. He is taking the proverbial high road.
"At this time, with what we're trying to accomplish here, I want to keep the focus on this team, not take any attention," he said. "I don't want to be a distraction."
But he is a distraction in another sort of way -- a good way for Colangelo and Coach K. Along with Kidd and Chauncey Billups, he adds a veteran hue to this team, something it lacked at the Worlds. And Colangelo said Bryant brings something else.
"There's a toughness and an edge to Kobe and that's something we didn't have last year," Colangelo said. "I think to be really successful on this level you have to have an edge. I think we've got a little bit of that now."
Colangelo also made sure that everyone, including Bryant, had to check their egos at the door. (No small request.) At a team meeting Thursday, Colangelo told the players that while a few had won NBA titles and most have been on All-Star teams, only one of them, Kidd, had a gold medal.