James, Bryant form USA's new dream team
By DAVID DUPREE
LAS VEGAS — Kobe Bryant was already an NBA superstar when he first heard the rave about a teenage phenom from Ohio.
Bryant wanted to “check him out, firsthand,” to see what the buzz was about. So one day when his Los Angeles Lakers had a night off and one of LeBron James’s high school games was on ESPN, Bryant tuned in.
“He was big — very big — versatile and could do a lot of things on the basketball court,” Bryant said. “Usually players at that age (17) don’t develop the things he had until later in their careers. I said to myself, ’Uh-oh, this guy can go. He is going to have to be reckoned with.’ Obviously, I was right.”
James also has a vivid recollection of Bryant.
“I remember 1996 when he was drafted,” James said. “I was like 11 years old, playing in an AAU tournament, and when you’re that young and you see another guy who is only 17 or 18 going right to the NBA, you’re automatically a fan.
”I saw how young he was and thought he was one of us. He’s a kid like me.“
James, 23, and Bryant, who turns 29 Thursday, sat down together to talk about being teammates with USA Basketball. The two have become the faces of the squad that begins play Wednesday against Venezuela in the Olympic qualifying Tournament of Americas in Las Vegas (11 p.m. EDT, ESPN Classic).
”Both of them have a seriousness about them that is very professional,“ said the coach of the team, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Focus on climb back
It’s been a long championship drought for the United States as the once-invincible team of NBA stars has come up short in the last three major international competitions — finishing sixth in the 2002 world championship, third in the 2004 Olympics and third in the 2006 world championship.
Krzyzewski and other USA Basketball officials hope the climb back culminates in an Olympic gold medal next summer in Beijing. The U.S. is one of 10 countries convening in Las Vegas, shooting for two Olympic spots. The championship game is Sept. 2.
No one is more focused on the task than Bryant and James, who have long been linked to one another, even if they never were that close — until now.
But in the short time together (three days last month and the last two weeks training in Las Vegas) they have come to appreciate each other even more.
”We’ve always had the utmost respect for each other because we know what kind of players we are, but I think this is definitely the beginning of a new friendship,“ James said.
Bryant adds: ”A lot of times the media tries to pit players versus each other. All we are trying to do is help our respective teams win, but at the same time, we have the mutual respect and admiration for each other. That’s the type of competition you want kids growing up to watch and learn from.“
Both stars are a bit uncomfortable being labeled the face of the national team but take it in stride.
”We’re out there to win a gold medal, so each of us is going to do whatever we have to do,“ Bryant said. ”Winning a gold medal is at the top of the list for me.“
James feels the same way.
”It’s all about team for us,“ he said. ”We’re both here to better the team, but at the same time we know it’s not LeBron and Kobe. It’s USA Basketball.“
This is Bryant’s first appearance with the national team, while it’s the third for James. He was a little used reserve on the 2004 Olympic bronze medal-winning team in Athens and was one of the stars of the team that finished third in last summer’s world championships in Saitama, Japan.
”I’m ready for this,“ James said.
Krzyzewski said it isn’t fair to look at this as Bryant’s or James’ team.
”I would hope the face of the team is a composite of all the guys on the team,“ the coach said, ”not just one or two. I don’t think those guys would want to be considered the face of the team. In fact, I know they wouldn’t want it.“
Bryant has been the NBA’s top scorer the last two seasons, and he has to score a lot for the Lakers to have a chance to win. James, however, is more of a facilitator. And while Bryant gets criticized for shooting so much, James is often accused of not shooting enough.
One play illustrated the difference in their styles. In the opener of last season’s Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, James, who could have taken a shot in the final seconds, passed instead to open teammate Donyell Marshall who missed a 3-pointer. James’ Cleveland Cavaliers lost, 79-76.
James was lambasted for not taking the shot.
”That was the most criticism I ever got for making what I thought was the right play,“ James said.
Bryant defended James’s decision.
”He made the play he had to make,“ Bryant said. ”But our teams are different. I would have had to take the shot, and if I missed, I would have taken the criticism.“
Be like Mike and Magic
The on-court chemistry between Bryant and James has already been evident. It is similar to the Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson tandem on the 1992 Dream Team when USA Basketball paired up the NBA’s greatest scorer with the league’s most creative facilitator.
”Being on the court with both of them is trouble,“ said point guard Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets, who will make sure the right player gets the ball and who Bryant and James say is the true leader of the team. ”You almost fall into the trap where you think you can do anything. Everybody wants to talk about wanting to play with me, but I want to play with those guys because they make the game so easy.“
Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets was the leading scorer on last summer’s world championship team, averaging 19.9 points a game. He and James have long been best of friends, and he has gotten closer to Bryant these past weeks. Anthony said both players are eager to make sacrifices.
”They’re my guys,“ he said. ”We’re all learning from each other, and we’re going to take all of this back into the (NBA) season.“
Where making the adjustment from foe to teammate might be difficult for some players, it hasn’t been for Bryant and James.
”During the season I root for him,“ Bryant said. ”Of course you want to win when your team plays his, but we’re in this together now.“
”It’s easy,“ adds James. ”You don’t have to second guess yourself because he is there backing you up. I’ve always been quoted as saying Kobe Bryant is the best player in our league, and I’ll continue to say that. You automatically try to feast off of that. Why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you want to copy the best player in the world to better your game?“
Defining and accepting roles can also be a problem with a team of All-Stars, largely because whatever role a player has with his regular team is going to be different on a team of stars.
So far, however, that hasn’t been a problem, either.
”Kobe, LeBron and a number of guys are saying, ’I’m willing to change my role from what it is on my current team to fit this team,’“ Krzyzewski said. ”It’s called being unselfish. Unselfish is not shooting the ball all the time and accepting new things that might not make you look quite as good because you don’t do them 100 games out of the year. LeBron doesn’t get a chance to drive as much is one example.“
Some roles the coaching staff doesn’t want to see change too much, though.
”When I first talked to Kobe, he said he would do whatever I needed him to do and that he wanted to guard the best perimeter player every day,“ Krzyzewski said. ”He also said, ’I don’t have to be the shooter,’ and I said, ’Let’s not go too far.’ “
The tie that bonds Bryant and James perhaps stronger than any other is their competitive nature.
”We want to win,“ James said. ”If I’m doing it as a facilitator or if he’s doing it as a scorer, at the end of the day we just want to win — at whatever it is. We definitely see that we have that in common.“