It had been a tough couple of years for the United States Men's Basketball Team and the late great Kobe Bean Bryant. Team USA was still reeling from surprising losses in the 2002 FIBA World Cup and the 2004 Olympics, both to Manu Ginobli led Argentina.
The defeat left Team USA in a dilemma despite having stars like Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan.
Kobe had his fair share of disappointment, as he was desperately trying to break the perception that he can win without the legendary Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq had then been traded to the Miami Heat due to the rift between him and Kobe and won a title D-Wade in Miami.
The Mamba, as he is fondly known, is one of the most driven and passionate superstars ever, he has an assassin's mentality, and this led him to chase team success more clinically.
Reeling from a loss to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, Kobe was convinced by Team USA program director Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski to lead them and their insanely talented squad to the promised land.
"Kobe had never played for USA Basketball, but I knew he had a desire to do so," Colangelo said " 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," reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Kobe Bryant and coach Mike Krzyzewski (Source: Talk Basket)
Kobe already had a preconceived notion that he could not lead a team and needed a co-star to help him. In the initial days of Team USA gathering for practice, Bryant set the tone for his teammates. Despite not having close relationships like his other teammates, Kobe managed to prove that he could not only co-exist with other alphas but lead them and help them be the best versions of themselves.
Team USA Director, Jerry Colangelo, described it perfectly when he said, " In some ways, he was a little bit of a loner. People didn't have a good read on him. People looked at him in a particular way and just kinda put him in a box.", reports Bleacher Report.
Kobe championed the philosophy, which soon gained a moniker called Mamba Mentality, which means working persistently to try and be the best version of yourself. We have to put in consistent work since circumstances, situations and a lot of other factors keep changing daily, and we have to keep up with the change to not only survive but thrive.
He was able to impart this to his teammates, who were by no means any less talented, he helped them raise their game, and in return, they formed a bond with him that will stick with them for life. Kobe ended up becoming a big brother for a lot of superstars like LeBron and instilled a drive in them that helped them elevate their game to another level.
Kobe took a while to get to know his teammates but early morning practices and spending more time with them in the hotel forged a bond like none other.
Colangelo explained it perfectly when he said, "The first day of training camp because he committed to doing so, he was at the workout facility at like 5:30 in the morning. I 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.", reports The Philadelphia Inquirer
A sure-shot way of impressing Kobe would be with your work ethic, drive and passion for the sport. The young stars such as D Wade, Chris Paul, and LeBron had that in them.
Dwyane Wade , Kobe Bryant , LeBron James and Jason Kidd (Source: Essentially Sports)
The team was finally ready, and the talent level seemed to be miles ahead compared to any other team, other than the 1992 Dream Team led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Bryant knew what was at stake, though, and did not want to take anything for granted. He asked for game tapes on other teams and their star scorers to observe and analyze. Kobe knew that his opponents had an advantage since the NBA was globally televised and so it was easy for other teams to watch game film and understand their habits.
His experience playing abroad also came in handy as he explained to his teammates that international players were no scrubs and that they had to be on their A-game if they were to bring the gold back home.
"All the other guys are still young, right? I mean, they were extremely young, no championship experience," Kobe says. "It was important for me to impress upon them, 'Look, these international players can play.' Just because you might not see them in the NBA doesn't mean they don't have the option of coming to the NBA.", as per reports by Bleacher Report
Bryant had mentally prepared the team, and now it was time to get down to business. His innate ability to motivate his teammates through his hustle and heart was put on full display in their first game against a talented Spain side, featuring Kobe's Lakers teammate Pau Gasol.
The game's highlight was a play that called for Rudy Fernandez to shoot a three-pointer coming off a motion with Pau Gasol setting a screen. Kobe tracked Fernandez's run to the three-point line and barreled right into Pau with his shoulder, sending him sprawling to the ground.
This play highlights his mindset, irrespective of whether Pau was his teammate or not, Bryant set out to seek and destroy. Later, he explained that the play was a dual message, not only for his USA teammates but also to Pau.
"He knows me, man," Kobe says. "I don't play, and for us, it was important to send that message, too. We had just come off losing to the Celtics, and I wanted to send Pau a message as well in, This is what you have to be willing to do to win titles. So, it was kind of a dual message, one for our team and USA and winning this game, winning this medal, but also for Pau in understanding this is the line that you have to cross to be a champion.", reports Bleacher Report.
Team USA followed their leader and coasted through to the finals with dominant performances. A familiar foe in Spain stood in between their path to redemption and Olympic glory. Kobe had a dominant 20 point game with clutch buckets to put his team in a firm position to grab the gold.
His best moments came in the fourth quarter, where he scored 13 points, three assists and two vital blocks. Spain cut their lead to two with 8 minutes to go, and Kobe would not be denied his first gold and scored a clutch jumper which sparked a remarkable 12-2 to give them some breathing space.
Spain would not bow out that easily though, and cut the lead to 5 with 3 minutes left to go, Bryant did what he always does and hit yet another clutch three and put his finger on the lips to silence the crowd.
That will forever remain an iconic moment in the Olympics, as Kobe and his team clinched a historic gold and cemented their names in Olympic history forever.
Kobe summarized his feelings on winning Olympic Gold in an interview with USA Basketball, "What you saw today was a team. Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant and being individuals. Well, what you saw today was a team bonded together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win. It's an unbelievable feeling to win a gold medal for your country.
I can't begin to describe to you the feeling we all feel right now. It's a different feeling playing for your country. When we play in the NBA, we're playing for a particular city, a particular market. When you play for your country, those lines all go away. We're all together, we're all playing for USA Basketball and it carries a great honour that goes beyond winning the NBA championship."
Kobe will forever be etched in Basketball history as a legend, and his Olympic exploits will not be forgotten anytime soon by fans nor his teammates.