What the Olympics meant to Kobe Bryant

For the man who had it all in basketball, the Olympics was a chance to test himself in a new team, redeem his nation's number-one status, and pass on the 'Mamba mentality'
By Andrew Binner

By the time Kobe Bryant made his Olympic basketball debut at Beijing 2008, he was already a three-time NBA Champion, and was also the league's reigning Most Valuable Player.

He was an LA Lakers legend, and one of the most famous sportsmen in the United States, if not the world.

But the shooting guard's main motivation didn't come from fame or money.

He wanted to be the best basketball player on the planet, test his talents in new areas and represent his country.

After the tragic death of the basketball legend in a helicopter accident, Bryant's poignant displays over two Olympics proved that he was the ultimate team-player and leader, even claiming before his Olympic debut that a gold medal would mean more to him than the NBA Championship.

The Redeem Team

Shock waves rippled through the basketball world at the Athens 2004 Olympics when Team USA were knocked out by eventual winners Argentina in the semi-finals. Without Kobe.

The loss was a huge blow to the heavy pre-tournament favourites on the court and back home, and Bryant was determined to put this right.

In fact, the Philadelphia-born star was so keen to play in Beijing, that he delayed surgery on a torn ligament in his finger.

"There was a lot of beauty in the loss, because it means that the game we love is growing... but at the same time it was like 'OK, that's beautiful, but now we want it back," Bryant said on the International Olympic Committee's YouTube channel in 2015.

"(Beijing) 2008 was about reclaiming what we started. We couldn't wait to get after it and challenge for that gold medal.... for us it was a shot at redemption.

"It was something that was very personal to us to put our country back on top. It's a different feeling playing for your country. When you're playing in the NBA you're playing for a particular city, but when you're playing for your country those lines go away. It carries a great honour that goes above and beyond winning the NBA Championship."

But his desire to play in the Olympics wasn't just about avenging 2004's loss. It was also about experiencing a new sporting environment, and paying homage to all other athletes in the world who had worked so hard to be there.

"You have some of the best in the world in what they do," he said.

"For me that's even more special than being out in LA (Los Angeles) and seeing celebrities walking around because it's athlete to athlete.

"I understand what they put their body through to get there, and so there's so much mutual respect and admiration."

Kobe Bryant's 'Mamba Mentality'

Bryant was pivotal at the Beijing Games, scoring 20 points and contributed six assists in a nail-biting final as Team USA defeated Spain 118-107 to win the gold medal.

But even more valuable than his silky skills was his ability to lead, and his dedication to train.

At the team's first meeting, as the established NBA stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony made their way to the back row, Bryant sat apart from his colleagues in the second row, from where he could better hear what head coach Mike Krzyzewski was saying.

Bryant's early starts also made an impression on the team, who followed suit in heading to the gym at five o'clock in the morning.

"His first day of practice when that team got together that summer, he set the tone," then USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo told Bleacher Report.

"The ball was up in the air, it hit the floor, and he dove for a loose ball, and there it was. That was the beginning."

"I think the Olympic experience gave people a different opinion, viewpoint about Kobe, and I think the experience helped Kobe going forward."

The alpha dog in a pack of alpha dogs

Through Bryant's maturity, he was able to establish himself as the leader of a team brimming with talent.

"I think for LeBron, he benefited from Kobe, and I think vice versa," the oldest member of the team, Jason Kidd, told Bleacher Report.

"I think you can look at Kobe and everybody got better, everybody had great years that following year. 'Melo, Chris Paul, those guys got better seeing Kobe in that light, and LeBron."'

'Never a greater warrior'

Upon hearing of his passing, Bryant's Olympic head coach Krzyzewski and his assistant Jim Boeheim reinforced their player's affect on the squad during this period.

“I had the amazing honor of coaching Kobe in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and I will always remember how much he cherished representing his country in a first-class manner playing the game he so loved," Krzyzewski told Yahoo Sport.

"He was in constant pursuit of doing something special and there will never be a greater warrior in our sport."

"The game of basketball is better today because of Kobe, and he deserves eternal appreciation for that. This is a devastating loss."

“He came in the first day and worked twice as hard as everybody else. He taught all the young players, LeBron and Carmelo and all those guys: ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta go after this,' Boeheim continued.

“We lost in the World Championship the year before. And he just showed everybody — this is what you do. And we overpowered everybody in that tournament, then we went to the Olympics and overpowered everybody. When it was a close game against Spain in the finals, he took the ball, made the play to win the game.

Tributes pour in from Olympic teammates

Dwayne Wade was part of the USA team that lost to Argentina in 2004, before winning gold in 2008, and he told ESPN that Bryant was the benchmark for him.

"He was a great leader and a great champion. If you got a chance to know Kobe, there was nobody better, man. When I came into the league that's who I chased, I wanted to be respected by him, because I knew if I reached that level then I'd achieved something."

Carmelo Anthony, who grew close with Bryant after playing in the same gold-medal teams in 2008 and 2012, hailed their bond, that went way beyond sport in USA Today.

“Our friendship and relationship was deeper than basketball," Anthony said. "It was family. It was friendship. Basketball was the last piece of connective tissue between us two."

The 'greatest American ambassador on the planet'

One man who saw in his own words 'Kobe fever', and its affect on the world at the Olympics, was Bob Condron, the former Director of Media Services + Operations, for the United States Olympic Committee.

"It was a bus ride on a steamy morning in Beijing in August 2008," recalled Condron. "It was the USA Olympic basketball team headed to practice. The best basketball players in the world, headphones plugged in, 12 players and all the staff watching the road outside, with its wonders and intrigue, all of them getting ready to represent our country on the widest stage sports can feature. Coach Mike Krzyzweski sitting behind the driver, going over his day and what it would take to make all these various personalities and talents come together for 17 days in the Olympic Games. On his right, next to the window was Kobe Bryant, who was gathering it all in. Dressed in USA Basketball gear, the five rings on his warmups. Representing his country was important to him. 'What's our mission today, coach,' he asked the man on his left. Kobe didn't just want to shoot baskets, he wanted to be involved in making this team better. He needed to know these details because details all added up if you wanted to be great."

"He was always the first one off the bus to practice. Once, he glanced to his left and saw something that amazed him. At this early time of the morning there were about 10 older Chinese women, all excited about seeing the USA basketball team. He marched over to say hello. To smile and make their lives a little brighter. That's what he did every day," he said in tribute to Bryant.

"And once inside the players warmed up, shot baskets...and for 15 minutes or so met the media. I got to see something I'd never seen in sports. With the world's media in attendance, and all hoping to get a few words with Kobe.

"He did three interviews in three different languages to TV crews from Italy, Spain and the US. None were expecting that, but in one 10 minute session Kobe talked to 25 million viewers in their own language."

"And then came Opening Ceremonies. The U.S. team was gathering for the ceremonies in the Gymnastics arena, ready to make a half mile hike to the the Bird's Nest to march into the stadium in front of more than a billion viewers around the world.

"On the way the eyes of those athletes from around the world opened wide when they saw Kobe. Track athletes from the Dominican Republic, Croatian handball players, Russian gymnasts, Denmark fencers...all galvanized into Kobe fever. They wanted a pat on the back, a picture, just to say hello to the most famous basketball player in the world. And he stopped at every handshake opportunity, every "Hi Kobe" shouted in his direction. At that moment he was the greatest American Ambassador on the planet.

Olympic commitment

Even in retirement, Bryant retained close ties to the Olympic movement.

He attended the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for women’s gymnastics, and has helped raise funds for Team USA Swimming's foundation, while he also played a part in successfully securing the Olympic Games for the city of Los Angeles in 2028.