Around the U.S. Olympic basketball team, the players had come to understand the odd machinations of life with Kobe Bryant, learning to laugh away the self-love and peculiarities of the planet’s best player.
His teammates called him out when he speed-walked into the opening ceremony, leaving them several yards behind to treat his own entrance with the lavish ovation that it deserved. Together, they understood the reality that it was all about Kobe on the way into those Games. And, alone, Chris Paul discovered how it would be all about Kobe on the way out of the gold-medal game against Spain.
As Paul worked his way to the free-throw line to shoot two technical fouls with 26 seconds left, Bryant could be seen intruding on the space, nudging Paul out of the way to take those shots for himself. Paul flashed a perplexed look, but resistance was futile.
“Come on, Kobe had to pad his stats,” another Team USA teammate would laugh later.
It didn’t go unnoticed, but no one cared much in the celebration of the gold-medal victory. They meet again in New Orleans on Wednesday night, the 2008 MVP, Bryant, and his runner-up, Paul. The Hornets and Houston Rockets are the rising threats in the Western Conference, and the Lakers are on a mission to slap them silly. They destroyed the Rockets and Bryant brings the unbeaten Lakers into New Orleans to deliver two messages. The West will be ours again, the MVP mine.