Two days before torching the Toronto Raptors for 81 points, for the greatest non-Wilt scoring game in NBA history, Kobe Bryant sat in Jerry Colangelo’s office in Phoenix and listened to one of basketball’s power brokers make the case that Bryant should set aside his shoot-first selfishness for the good of the country.
The managing director of USA Basketball, Colangelo was charged with turning around the men’s national team, with building a “redeem team” that would wash away the embarrassment of a sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. So, hours before the Lakers played the Suns in January 2006, Colangelo called Bryant in for a meeting to recruit him for the mission of restoring excellence and honor to American basketball in time for the 2008 Games in Beijing. But Colangelo’s pitch came with a condition.
“Kobe had never played for USA Basketball, but I knew he had a desire to do so,” Colangelo, who was the Suns’ chairman at the time, said Friday. “So I said, ‘Kobe, what if I said to you that I’m interested in you playing for us, but maybe you have a different role. You’re not going to be a scorer. You’re going to be a distributor.’ And he looked at me. He says, ‘I’ll do whatever you want, because I want to be on that team.’”
During a Zoom call on the eve of Bryant’s posthumous induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, his fellow inductees held in their sadness over his death and praised him for his competitiveness, for his enthusiasm for and commitment to women’s basketball, for his effect on those who played with or against him. Tim Duncan considered it an honor to share the court with him. Kevin Garnett called him “a little bro to me. … I miss him every day.” Tamika Catchings and Bryant had befriended each other as children in Italy, when each one’s father -- Harvey Catchings and Joe Bryant -- was playing professionally there. “Lives intertwined,” she said. “This was going to be the storybook ending.”
Still, the most telling and revealing remarks came from Colangelo, the chairman of the Hall of Fame’s board of governors. His brief and damaging stint atop the 76ers’ basketball-operations department notwithstanding, Colangelo has generally been a force for good throughout his 55 years in basketball. His rehabilitation of USA Basketball might stand as his grandest achievement. At those ’04 Games, from coach Larry Brown to a roster unfit for the free-flowing style of international basketball, the Olympic team had fallen into finger-pointing, buck-passing, and me-first play. Colangelo started changing everything by coaxing Mike Krzyzewski to coach, then sold Bryant on being a quasi-point guard by dangling in front of him an enticing opportunity.
Had he not decided to jump straight from Lower Merion High School to the NBA, had he gone to college instead, Bryant would have chosen Duke. He and Krzyzewski had bonded that much during the recruiting process, even without Bryant ever taking an official visit to Durham, N.C. Now was his chance, finally, to play for Coach K. Bryant couldn’t resist. He was all in, and behind him, the rest of that USA roster -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony -- fell in line. Somewhere between the dominance of the 1992 Dream Team and the indifference in Athens, too many American pros had come to regard playing for their country as a waste of time. Bryant helped make it cool again.
“First day of training camp, because he committed to doing so, he was at the workout facility at like 5:30 in the morning,” Colangelo said. “Got there a week early to train. His impact on the other players was pretty evident. They started showing up, many of them, the LeBrons and Wades, etc., to be there with him at 5:30, 6 a.m., to be with him before our workouts. And then, the first scrimmage that we had, the ball literally went up to start the scrimmage, and there was a loose ball, and Kobe went headfirst -- could have hurt himself. He set the tone, is my point, from the moment he put on the USA jersey.”
The end of those 2008 Games belonged to Bryant, too. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter of the USA’s 118-107 victory over Spain, including a four-point play that he capped by holding his index finger to his lips to hush a crowd of Spaniards who had grown loud and rowdy in the stands, who because of Bryant would see their country settle for silver. It was the first of four championships in a four-year span for him -- two NBA titles with the Lakers, a gold medal in ’08 and another in London in 2012 -- a period when he was more than the best basketball player in the world. When he was the best winner in the sport. When Kobe Bryant would do whatever was asked of him if it meant that he, his team, and his country would stand above the rest.
Editor’s Note: Mike Sielski’s book “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” will be published in January.