Kobe Bryant thinks he inherited “the globalization of the game,” in part because he spent a lot of his childhood in Italy and learned to speak Italian and Spanish.
BARCELONA, Spain — They carry cameras and microphones, sprinting toward Kobe Bryant like Christmas shoppers who just spotted the “it” gift sitting on shelves.
Their questions come quickly, some in English, many in Spanish, and Bryant gives the perfect answer every time.
Yes, Spain is an incredible team that can pose problems for the U.S.
No, Pau Gasol isn’t getting traded from the Lakers as long as he is there.
The only thing Bryant can’t seem to explain to reporters is why he’s so much more popular than his teammates on the Olympic basketball team.
“I don’t know. I don’t know where it comes from or how that happens,” he said Saturday with a laugh. “It all started with the Dream Team in terms of basketball becoming so global. When I came into the NBA, I kind of inherited kind of the globalization of the game, and then having grown up overseas they really kind of laid claim to me because this is where I learned how to play the game, is overseas.”
Chris Paul figures Bryant owes it to the way he’s won and carried himself through the years — along with one other thing.
“A lot of it’s got to do, too, that he plays for the Lakers. I learned that, too, I learned that quick,” Paul said. “Everywhere you go, shoot, the Lakers, they never play a road game. Only time they might play a road game now is in Oklahoma City.”
Bryant is not the best player on the U.S. team, probably just cracking the top three at this stage of his career. Yet for as good as LeBron James, Kevin Durant or any other U.S. player is, none draws the attention of Bryant once the Americans leave home.
“Well, he’s been doing it for 16 years in the NBA and in those 16 years the accomplishments are incredible. I mean, they’re worthy of a top-five player in the history of the game, really,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And then he’s been so visible, been all over the world. In others words, he’s traveled all over in the offseason. Even when we’re on this tour, he’s a guy that gets out, meets people. I think he has just made a commitment to being out there and as a result, you know, people follow him.”
The Americans still marvel at the frenzy surrounding Bryant four years ago in Beijing. U.S. assistant Mike D’Antoni once joked that the thunderous “Kobe! Kobe!” chants during the opening ceremonies had even James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony going, “What are we, potted plants?”
Bryant had made multiple promotional trips to the Far East by then and kept going out even during the Olympics to see other sports. He was already better known than most players because of all his All-Star appearances and five NBA championships.
“So he has all this equity in the game and has been so successful, that’s why he’s still bigger than life,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “That was really true in Beijing when we were there in ’08. He was like a Pied-Piper.”
Bryant isn’t always so engaging during the tough times back in the NBA. His interviews during the postseason when things are going poorly for the Lakers can be a wasted 10 minutes of a reporter’s life, knowing the one passionate answer Bryant may give will include profanity and can’t be used.
But while most of his U.S. teammates can battle the same moodiness during the lengthy summer with the national team, Bryant leaves his in Los Angeles. He’s emerged as something of a team spokesman, able to be humorous (poking fun at President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s “Kiss Cam” struggles) one minute and controversial (insisting this squad could have taken a game from the Dream Team, attacking Commissioner David Stern’s proposal to limit Olympic participation to younger players) the next.
He’s best with the international media, which often gets all the photos it wants of American players but not the answers. Bryant spent eight years of his childhood in Italy while his father, Joe, played professionally, and he can speak Italian and Spanish.
“I think a lot of it has to do with luck,” Bryant said. “Like I said, where I was raised and my ability to communicate with them and kind of understand the culture because I grew up in that culture, in that environment, so it’s probably a little bit easier for me to communicate globally than it is for everybody else.”
Imagine how big Bryant would be if the international audience saw his usual game.
The NBA’s fifth-leading career scorer enjoys, as he puts it, not having to do very much with the national team. He has averaged 5.7 points in three exhibition games, tied with a couple of guys getting minor minutes for third-worst on the team. He seems satisfied, knowing his number may be called if there’s ever a real need.
“If you would watch him work on defense, fighting through screens, he looks like a rookie trying to make a team and I think he likes that,” Krzyzewski said. “It kind of juices him up, makes him have empathy for the guys who eventually will be playing with him on the Laker team and probably he’s asking someone else to do that with the Lakers, because you couldn’t do that and try to score 30 points a ballgame for 80-something games. There’s no way. But here he does everything we ask him to do and more.”
Colangelo met with Bryant about a week after his 81-point performance, second-best in NBA history, in January 2006, asking him how he would handle it if the Americans asked him to do something besides score. Bryant responded that it would be no problem, then came through with some big shots down the stretch to help hold off Spain 118-107 in the 2008 gold-medal game.
“His senior leadership is very, very important. The fact that he’s willing to kind of acquiesce in some ways is significant,” Colangelo said. “But when it’s all said and done, I mean when you get down to the last game and the last shot, I think you’re going to consider Kobe having the ball. And I think Kobe is the guy, because of his track record, is the guy who will make the shot.”
He’d sure be a hit in the interview afterward.