: It is 1:14 in the morning when the U.S. Olympic team walks out of a new basketball museum in Harlem. Even though it has been raining all night and the clock has officially turned to Monday, the streets are full of people waiting for a glimpse of their favorite players.
It's a festive atmosphere until Kobe Bryant emerges. Then, the crowd goes bonkers, chanting his name in unison. It sounds like a scene outside Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Bryant's smile practically lights up the night.
"To play for my country, it means everything to me," Bryant said.
It seems that every Olympic team of recent vintage needs a nickname, and already some are calling this one the Redeem Team. It's catchy. It rhymes. It works, especially for the always-polarizing Bryant.
In the course of one year, he demanded a trade, reconciled with the Lakers, won an MVP trophy, broke his finger, led his team to the NBA Finals and lost badly to the Celtics.
Technically, that means he still hasn't won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, who felt compelled to remind Bryant of such details in a vulgar rap song performed two weeks ago in this very city.
So, Kobe, about your former teammate . . .
"Shaq knows what I'm about," Bryant said. "His (rapping) was about other reasons, because he thinks it's funny or because he's trying to be entertaining. We played together. He knows what I'm about. He knows what I do.
"I just take it in stride. I've got other things to focus on. We had a great year. I had a great vacation with my family. Now, we're going on this gold-medal run, and it's going to take a lot of energy. To waste that energy on a peripheral opponent makes no sense at all."
Besides, Bryant is having the time of his life. While Team USA is emphasizing humility, defense and 12 equal parts, there's no doubt that Bryant and LeBron James are the leading men of this show.
James is the immensely talented goofball keeping everyone loose and working wonders for team chemistry. Meanwhile, the Lakers star is setting the tone with an incredible work ethic and an overwhelming desire to please his country and his new coaching staff.
"I've had a great relationship with Kobe, and it's even better now," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's just setting the perfect example."
It's been this way for some time.
For instance, his first meeting with USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo came right after Bryant's memorable 81-point outburst against the Raptors in 2006. Looking to gauge the temperature, Colangelo told Bryant that the emphasis of this mission was on the team, not the individual, and that Bryant might even have to play point guard.
Without hesitation, Bryant vowed to do whatever was asked of him.
"That told me something right there," Colangelo said.
While Bryant certainly has his detractors, especially in Phoenix, you'll find none of them inside the walls of USA Basketball. To a man, they've been awed by his commitment and his attitude, not just his talent. Krzyzewski has even clipped footage of the opening play of last year's qualifying tournament - where Bryant harasses the opponent, pokes the ball free and then dives on the floor to recover the ball - as a metaphor and a mission statement for the entire team.
Bryant is clearly relishing this chance at personal redemption and, in some ways, he is filling a void from his youth, completing a childhood dream by playing for the Duke coach, who recruited Bryant many years ago.
"It would really suck if you lose the NBA championship and lose the gold medal," Bryant said. "That's just a terrible year, no way around it. So I'm looking forward to getting this thing done."
After all, the chance for ultimate atonement is drawing near, and just on the other side of that big wall in China.