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BEIJING 2008

Letting the 'mamba loose,' Bryant takes over game on a stage that was unfamiliar

August 25, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Beijing

Kobe Bryant waved to the roaring crowd at Wukesong Arena, pounding his hand over his heart and beaming a smile as wide as all of China.

Every few seconds, he looked down at his chest and seemed to rediscover the Olympic gold medal resting against his Team USA warmup jacket. He kissed the precious disc again and again, a kid who had just received the toy he always wanted but never thought he'd get.

Bryant became an NBA champion for the first time when he was 21 and had won three titles by the time he was 23. On Sunday, one day past his 30th birthday, Bryant became an Olympic champion for the first time, and he celebrated with abandon, diving into the moving circle his teammates had formed at midcourt and dancing wildly to music they alone could hear.

Later, arms linked, the entire team climbed atop the medal stand and stood at attention, hands over hearts, while the national anthem played and the American flag was raised.

"Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant and individuals," Bryant said. "But what you saw today was a team bonding and facing adversity and coming out with a big win."

After a succession of routs that tested their ability to pay attention but never challenged their resolve, the U.S. men unexpectedly found themselves in a game Sunday.

When they were pushed, they shoved right back, prepared for any scenario thanks to three years of careful planning and the continuity begun when Jerry Colangelo was appointed managing director of the men's national team in 2005.

Their rugged, defense-be-damned, 118-107 victory over Spain came from the heart. It was built on Dwyane Wade's 27 points, Chris Bosh's team-high seven rebounds and the team's 60% shooting efficiency.

But it would not have been possible without Bryant's spectacular 13-point effort in the fourth quarter. For that he credited Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had urged him to set aside the caution he had adopted after he drew two personal fouls early in the first quarter.

"He told me to let that mamba loose," Bryant said, "and that's what I was able to do."

Not that it's a novelty for Bryant to step in and take over a game.

"I've seen that a couple of times," Spain's Pau Gasol, Bryant's Lakers teammate, said with a smile that suggested he wished he hadn't seen it again Sunday.

"He likes to have the ball down the stretch and take care of those big plays down the stretch. I'm familiar with that."

Knowing Bryant's capabilities didn't make his performance Sunday any less remarkable.

He did it on a stage he had never occupied before, with the eyes of the world on him. He didn't come close to matching swimmer Michael Phelps' haul of eight gold medals, but Bryant emerged as one of the Games' most popular and charismatic figures.

Fans weren't the only ones who wanted to snap pictures of him. His teammates did too.

"Kobe, he's a special player. He's the best player on the planet right now," said point guard Jason Kidd, who saw similar feats when he and the New Jersey Nets were swept by Bryant and the Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals.

"Kobe loves that situation. If he has the ball and we need a basket, we know we can count on him."

They needed baskets badly early in the fourth quarter.

Spain had cut a 13-point deficit to 91-89 within the first two minutes of the period before Krzyzewski took a timeout.

Bryant returned to make a short jumper, assist on Deron Williams' three-point shot and fake teenage point guard Ricky Rubio out of the arena before passing to Dwight Howard, who slammed the ball home for a 98-89 lead.

Bryant went on to make a three-point shot for a 101-92 lead and to beat Rudy Fernandez on a long three and turn it into a four-point play after he was fouled with 3:10 to go. If that wasn't enough to silence Spain's loud and hopeful fans, he emphasized his point by holding his index finger against his lips, his meaning impossible to miss.

Bryant drove the lane hard for a one-hander that gave the U.S. a 113-105 cushion with 71 seconds to go and made a pair of free throws after Spain was hit with two technical fouls with 26 seconds left.

"I think he did an excellent job, just like the rest of his teammates," said Gasol, who shared an embrace with Bryant on the court.

"They did an excellent job of coming here and playing with a lot of intensity, playing as a team, and they did a good job all tournament long."

Bryant, now an elder statesman on a young team, played his role to perfection. Colangelo said that having Bryant commit to play for the Olympic team had a great effect before the Games and an even greater result the last few weeks.

"I believe his teammates gained great respect for him," Colangelo said.

And he for them.

"I'm just so excited. We all are," Bryant said. "We've been waiting for this for years now and it's finally here.

"This meant so much. It just felt so good."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com.

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