Kobe Bryant earns $30m a year and should be well past worrying about reputations, but here he is on a soggy night in Manchester, settled around a table in a near-deserted town hall and talking about his nation’s own reputation, at the end of a day in which the USA basketball team have taken tea with Barack Obama and Manchester city council.
Bryant is gregarious and accessible, meeting the civic welcoming party, in a way that confounds his status as one of the best-paid athletes at the Olympic Games, but it is when he is asked if anything less than gold might be acceptable to the players who have just flown into England that he returns a monosyllabic, “No”. The answer rests there in the air, as uncompromising as the American public’s expectations, and it was only in the knockabout of a courtside media session yesterday that he made light of the same answer.
“For us, it’s win gold or don’t come back,” he emphasised. “It’s tough. They might revoke our citizenship!”
Bryant, of the LA Lakers, is a close friend of David Beckham, of the Galaxy, and the two have been chewing the fat about the Manchester weather, rather than the onerous demands of being first. “It’s chilly here. I needed help from him before packing,” Bryant says.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s side are so good that theirs is a dual challenge – of winning and winning well – with the absence of Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh and four or five others as little a consideration as the strong Spain side, which features the Laker Pau Gasol.
The debate shaping in the USA, however, surrounds Bryant’s recent bold claim that this squad, whom Chris Finch’s Great Britain side have the unenviable task of facing in Manchester tonight, even eclipses the “Dream Team” of 20 years back: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Larry Bird, who won gold in Barcelona in the first year that NBA players joined the Olympic ranks. That was the team widely credited with helping to spark the global popularity of the sport.
Bryant has already rowed back a little on that claim in the past few days, although the lid is off the box now. It is the ’92 standard which a USA squad, including five Olympians and five of the 2010 World Championship-winning team, must reach. That was unthinkable eight years ago, when the bronze medal in Athens prompted the top-to-bottom rebuilding of the USA game, creating the “Redeem Team”, which took gold in Beijing, and the “B-Team” (so called because of all the late drop-outs) that took the World Championships two years later.
There have been distractions, this time. The NBA commercial juggernaut is crowding in on the Olympic spirit in many ways, with the competition’s free-agency period leading to the unscheduled departure from the ranks for players to sign up. And if the NBA has its way, the 2016 USA Olympics team will be under-23 only, preserving players for the domestic season, though as The Independent revealed yesterday, Bryant branded that “stupid” from almost the minute the team jet had touched down in rainy Manchester.
This meant Krzyzewski wasn’t in the mood for discussing how short a time the GB team have had to build their first Olympics side since 1948. “We’ve only got together four or five days ago. Are you talking about how long the country has been here?” he joked. He is also tired of hearing about his team’s size problem, which seemed to be another way of finding a talking point: “It’s kind of boring to keep answering the question of what are you going to do with the bigs. Like, this is who we have. Why don’t we talk about what we’re going to do with what we have, rather than talk about what we don’t have?”
Half an hour in company reveals that an Olympic mood eases away all the loose talk. “We just spent time talking trash to each other. It made the time go by,” he says of the transatlantic flight. “We are more hungry now than we were in ’08 because a lot of us know this will be our last opportunity at the Olympics. So we have a very, very hungry team.” He says that the expectation helps: “You don’t want it to be, ‘Oh we’ll just go out there and give it our best effort.’ You want them to expect the best from you.”
Initial polls in the US suggest the 1992 team is considered better than this vintage, although the depths of the NBA ranks from which Krzyzewski has drawn seem far deeper. Jordan and Barkley have both chided Bryant for his “blasphemy”. An incentive to rewrite history, then. A sum of $30m can’t buy that kind of opportunity.
US give British a cold lesson in last warm-up
Great Britain showed plenty of heart but could not match the skill and speed of the defending champions in Manchester last night.
Team GB lost their last Olympic warm-up game 88-63