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BEIJING 2008

Kobe's passion reignited

Lakers star is ready to win an Olympic gold medal after losing in NBA Finals. He's sorry to see Turiaf leave but is confident that Vujacic will return.

July 22, 2008|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- The U.S. Olympic men's basketball team opened its final week of practice on home soil Monday before heading to China with a scrimmage against a select team consisting of such NBA rookies as O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose and such veterans as Andre Iguodala and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Did they even bother to keep score?

"I kept score," said Olympian Kobe Bryant, a smile back on his face and the competitive sparkle back in his eyes.

There was certainly no smile on Bryant's face roughly five weeks ago. That was the night his Lakers were crushed and humiliated by the Boston Celtics, 131-92, in the title-clinching game of the NBA Finals. Bryant was understandably somber, his swagger gone, his mood morose as he exited TD Banknorth Garden.

Bryant said he took a week off, even staying out of the gym, his second home, spent time with his family and just returned from a trip to Disney World in Florida.

"No Europe this year," he said Monday, "just Mickey."

He has returned to the court with his optimism and resolve restored, but now focused on a new goal: Olympic gold.

After finishing Monday's practice at Valley High, the first of four daily sessions, Bryant was asked again how he would equate winning the Olympic tournament with an NBA title.

"I think winning a gold medal is more important because you're playing for your country," he said, repeating what has become a kind of mantra. "You're not playing for a region or a state or a brand. You are playing for the United States of America."

There was no joy on Bryant's face, however, when the subject turned to a Lakers loss on Friday -- when the team declined to match a four-year, $17-million offer sheet given to reserve forward Ronny Turiaf by the Golden State Warriors.

"I'm sad about it," said Bryant, who has been talking to Turiaf daily about the situation. "I wish we could have kept him. I love him as a person, I love him as a basketball player and I hate to see him leave. I just wish him all the best.

"He would much rather have stayed with us, but that's the nature of the NBA, man."

Bryant, like the rest of his organization, is waiting for the second shoe to drop. Sasha Vujacic, the reserve guard nicknamed "The Machine" because of his proclivity for cranking up shots, is, like Turiaf, a restricted free agent.

Vujacic has yet to come back to the Lakers with an offer sheet and, in recent days, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been negotiating with Rob Pelinka, Vujacic's agent, about a new contract.

"I'm optimistic that we can re-sign Sasha," Bryant said. "We definitely should. He's turned into a fantastic player for us and I would hate to see us lose two of our key guys off the bench."

Bryant's optimism may be bolstered by more than just hope since he and Vujacic have the same agent.

There will be one constant when Bryant takes the court for the U.S. -- the injury to his right pinkie suffered in February. Although a ligament was torn and a small fragment of bone pulled off, Bryant decided against surgery until after the NBA season and the Olympics.

The time off since last month hasn't changed anything.

"It's completely torn," Bryant said, "so rest isn't going to do anything for it. It's still going to be painful until I get it fixed.

"I'm used to it. It feels normal to me now because I've been playing with it for such a long time. It's not a hindrance whatsoever.

"I got whacked on it pretty good during the season. I mean, right on it. When that happens, it will go dead for about a minute or two, but then it will come right back and be fine. I still play with the tape on it. I will be doing that until I get it fixed."

Bryant said he would undergo surgery to repair the finger after the Olympics, and figured the rehabilitation process would take about three weeks.

For now, Bryant is focused on Aug. 10 when the U.S. opens Olympic play against the host nation, China.

"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm on this team," he said. "We are ready and can't wait to get going."

He was reminded that, four years ago at the Athens Olympics, the U.S. team was often booed.

"The fans aren't going to block my jump shot," he said. "I think, for us, it gives us the focus and the intensity to do the job, to play the right way. We want their fans to boo. That's what makes the game fun, makes it passionate. We have our fans. They have their fans. Let's get it on."

--

steve.springer@latimes.com

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