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BEIJING 2008 : MARK HEISLER ON OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

For Kobe, the big 3-0 twice

August 22, 2008|MARK HEISLER

BEIJING — Now this is a birthday party.

On top of the little get-together the world is having and finding himself the toast of the town . . . or Asia . . . Kobe Bryant turns 30 Saturday, the day before the Olympic men's basketball final.

Guess what he wants for his birthday.

In the Year of the Kobe, there's more. He has his choice of birthdays.

Bryant will turn 30 here after tonight's game against Argentina when the clock strikes 12 and it becomes Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008.

Of course, in Philadelphia, where he was born, it will still be noon on Friday, Aug. 22, so there he will still just be 29 years and 364 days old.

"That's kind of weird," Bryant said at practice Thursday. "I hadn't thought about that."

Which one does he plan to celebrate?

"Two parties," he said. "Two gifts, everything."

Actually, he can celebrate here at midnight . . . and noon Saturday when it becomes Aug. 23 in Philadelphia . . . and 3 p.m. when it becomes Aug. 23 in Los Angeles . . . not to mention at the party the U.S. team hopes to throw Sunday afternoon if it wins its first Olympic gold medal in eight years.

His blessings don't merely runneth over, they multiplieth exponentially.

In the Year of the Kobe, he could also find himself chained to a downtrodden Lakers team, blast the organization, try to get himself traded and find himself in the NBA Finals with his first MVP award as a member of . . . the Lakers?

I'll have whatever he's having, and make it a double.

Appropriately enough, turning 30 is time for reflection when one stops saying, "Don't trust anyone over 30," and goes, "I'm 30? How did that happen?"

Bryant says he's happy about it, noting, "I'm turning 30 twice!"

"I enjoy it, actually," he said. "The 30s are where you start hitting your stride, really, start hitting your prime.

"Right now, physically, I'm as healthy as I've been in years, so the physical part of the game is back to where it used to be. The mental part of the game is there, so it feels great."

In his case, turning 30 marks the end of a year in which everything that had gone so spectacularly wrong suddenly turned around.

When he turned 29, he was coming off three disappointing seasons. Worse, for someone who grew up thinking he had a "destiny," as opposed to a career path, he had no control over anything.

As a young Laker, he had only to grow into an NBA star, make it work with Shaquille O'Neal, and the world was theirs.

After Shaq left, nothing Kobe did made any difference.

Before last spring's blowup, Bryant had been a perfect soldier for three seasons, never acknowledging a single doubt, throwing himself into it as only he could, but the Lakers were still out in the first round.

Then after torching owner Jerry Buss, railing about trading Andrew Bynum, trying to effect his own trade to the Chicago Bulls and finding he couldn't even do that, Bynum happened, Pau Gasol arrived, Kobe became the MVP and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals.

Well, not everything worked out, but close.

It's not that his life just went from hard to easy As he said, grinning, "My life has always been easy."

If it's true, it just means he never lost his stone-cold belief that everything would happen the way he visualized it, even if his destiny led him elsewhere.

OK, let's just say the lives of the rest of the Lakers weren't always easy.

"I think pieces have fallen into place," Bryant said. "To be honest with you, it's the answer to my prayers because I've been really frustrated by it.

"I wanted to win so bad and have the opportunity to win, and things have fallen into place. Now it's a matter of just going and trying to get it done."

In the meantime, he has this experience with the U.S. team, which has just been . . . perfect.

In its stunning loss to Greece in 2006, the young U.S. players broke down completely on defense as the Greeks scored on pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll.

In the very first play of last summer's Tournament of the Americas, Bryant tipped the ball away from the Venezuela point guard, dived on the court trying to get it, got back up, stole the next pass and started a fastbreak.

They've defended like banshees ever since.

"That's the clip Coach K [Coach Mike Krzyzewski] always uses, Kobe diving on the floor," says U.S. scout Tony Ronzone. "You're talking about an MVP player in the NBA who just made a statement to USA basketball. . . . And what that did is it took our defense to another level.

"What you're seeing is something that started last summer in Las Vegas, which is amazing."

Now Bryant is having the time of his life ("It's like being 5 at Disneyland, with no lines and the characters running around all over").

In recent years, with his number change and the introduction of his first Nike shoe, he started talking about relaunching the "second phase of my career."

He has liftoff.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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