Kobe Bryant leaves the Thomas & Mack Center court after a FIBA Americas basketball game and speaks Spanish to his wife, Vanessa, whom he calls Mamacita, and two young daughters.
In Italian, he instructs his kids to begin eating, mangia, and playfully cusses out U.S. national team assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. He writes in Latin on his Web site. From his Lakers teammates, he’s learning French (Ronny Turiaf) and Serbian (Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic).
He picked up some Portuguese from Ronaldinho, the famous FC Barcelona soccer player whom Bryant has befriended and watched, as one of 100,000 fans, at the Nou Camp Stadium in Spain.
Bryant brings an arsenal of talent to the U.S. national team as it seeks to end an embarrassing stretch on the global stage at the Olympics in China next month.
He also brings something intangible to an American squad that has underestimated recent opponents and paid a heavy price for those blunders. For the first time, the United States has not played in the championship game of three consecutive international tournaments.
Bryant has a curiosity about the world, formed growing up in Italy, that teammates who have been embarrassed by Greece and Argentina don’t comprehend.
“He has an appreciation for how other countries do things,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski says. “He has more of a global way of looking at things and a maturity. Kobe helps us immensely by doing that.”
By respecting the way other countries do things, he takes no foe for granted. He will attack Angola in group play in Beijing the way he did San Antonio in the Western Conference finals and the Virgin Islands in the Americas tournament.
Bryant says his European upbringing shouldn’t be ignored.
“I think it’s important,” he says. “In Italy, they’re so family-oriented and laid back. It was just a joy to grow up in that environment, where color doesn’t matter. It’s just about the genuine person you are inside.”
When Bryant was 6, his father, NBA center Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, moved the family from Philadelphia to Italy. Jellybean played for a team in Rieti, 40 minutes from Rome, for six years. Kobe even attended school in Switzerland for a year when his dad played in France.
He marveled at throngs of fans who regularly sang about his father in arenas during games.
“That’s probably the most different aspect, the crowd,” Bryant says. “They’re really loud. They’re very passionate about it.”
When Bryant played soccer, some saw a future world-class goalie.
Anyone else notice that Bryant led his Lakers teammates in a lap of high hand claps after that Game 5 victory over Boston to thank fans as the series headed back to Boston? That’s common in European sports, especially soccer.
For 12 seasons, D’Antoni starred on the Olimpia Milano basketball team in Italy, which Bryant rooted for and eventually bought. Bryant first wore No. 8 on his Lakers jersey because that was D’Antoni’s number.
“When you speak another language, in a different culture, you’re more open-minded to changes,” D’Antoni says. “You understand you don’t do it one way; you do it all kinds of different ways. It makes you well-rounded.”
Krzyzewski laughs when he sees Bryant kick a basketball in the air for stretches, which Bryant will do again this month when Team USA reconvenes in Las Vegas to play Canada and train for Beijing.
Coach K has asked Bryant often about growing up in Italy. Bryant’s national teammates haven’t been so inquisitive.
They’re two-dimensional, focused on points and rebounds. They don’t get the third dimension, how Bryant’s worldliness is such an asset in international competition.
As far as Chris Bosh knows, he says, Bryant is from Philly. Michael Redd says they’ve talked about vacation spots. Carlos Boozer, who rises and is in a hurry to leave, says Bryant will take the Olympics seriously.
Recent U.S. players can’t make that claim.
LeBron James, bearing a gaudy “Chosen One” tattoo across the top of his back, was asked how Bryant’s rich cultural experiences would benefit Team USA.
“I mean, he’s the best player we have in our league,” James says. “He’s willing to do everything. That sets him apart from everybody. Simple as that.”
It seemed as if he didn’t understand the question. When pressed, James was curt.
“It’s perfect for him,” James says. “It fits him. It fits him right.”
Yogi Berra offers more insight.
James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony were on the U.S. teams that finished third at the 2004 Athens Olympics and at the 2006 World Championship in Japan. Boozer was on the 2004 team. Bosh and Chris Paul played on the 2006 team.
They’re all on this U.S. team. Either they’ve learned to respect foreign opponents and the international game, or they’re part of a problem rooted in arrogance and ignorance.
This time around, it will be different. There’s a new player on the U.S. roster, someone who turns 30 the day before the gold medal game at Wukesong Indoor Stadium in Beijing, who thirsts to learn about others and speak in their tongues.
For kicks, Kobe Bryant might even cuss out Yao Ming in Chinese.
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