Kobe’s decade: On top at the start and at the end

EDITORS – The Associated Press is asking members to vote on their choice for Athlete of the Decade. Their selection will be announced Dec. 16. Ahead of that pick, the AP is profiling some of the leading candidates.

By BRIAN MAHONEYAP Basketball Writer

The United States had been losing games like this for years.

With the 2008 Olympic gold medal on the line, the heavily favored Americans were in jeopardy of another international embarrassment. Spain had outplayed them for much of the fourth quarter, slicing the U.S. lead to five points with 3 1/2 minutes left.

They needed to respond, and with their choice of NBA superstars, the Americans kicked the ball out to Kobe Bryant.

He nailed a 3-pointer as he was fouled, pressing his finger to his lips after his follow-through as if to tell the rowdy Spanish fans behind the basket – and maybe all those U.S. basketball critics – that it was time to quiet down.

Bryant’s four-point play helped the Americans hold on, ending their eight-year gold-medal drought.

All it took was finally getting the world’s best player in uniform, someone so good he deserves to be considered among the candidates for The Associated Press’ Athlete of the Decade.

“One thing that’s been obvious throughout his career is that he’s been a fierce competitor and many people in basketball would say he’s the closest thing that we’ve seen to Michael Jordan’s competitiveness,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “And he’s a winner.”

That Bryant and his teammates would want the ball in his hands in such a huge spot wasn’t a surprise: That’s exactly where many NBA experts say it should be.

In NBA.com’s recent survey of general managers, 89.7 percent of the respondents picked Bryant as the player they would want taking a shot with the game on the line, up from 88.9 percent last year. Try finding any other situation in sports, other than perhaps picking Tiger Woods to take the do-or-die putt or Mariano Rivera to close out a World Series game, where so many would come down on the same side of the debate.

“I really have no fear of those situations,” Bryant said. “I enjoy those moments, they’re fun. I look forward to those situations.”

Bryant had plenty before he was even 25. He’d already accumulated Hall of Fame credentials during the Lakers’ run of three straight championships from 2000-02, scoring 29.4 points per game during their 15-1 playoff stampede in ’01 that was as dominant as any postseason in sports history.

Plenty of greats who never won a title would have happily settled for that. Not Bryant.

He posted some of his best statistical years after Los Angeles traded Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, averaging 35.4 points in 2005-06 – highlighted by his 81-point night that ranks No. 2 on the NBA’s single-game list – and 31.6 the next season.

But he was seething, so angry that the Lakers couldn’t put together a team that could even get out of the first round of the playoffs that he said he wanted to be traded in 2007.

“I’ve had my long years, countless sleepless nights, just hoping and praying that we’d be able to get a team here where I could have some bullets in the gun to kind of go to war with, and I just wanted the opportunity to try to get back to winning the championships,” Bryant said. “And to their credit, they put together a great team that meshed very, very well.”

The Lakers won another title in June and began this season as the favorites to repeat, which means everything to Bryant. Reaching the top has never been enough for him. He needs to stay there.

“It is about longevity,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to be a player that had a hot two or three years there, or four or five years. I wanted to be able to sustain that over the course of a career.”

He’s done it with a ruthless focus, scoring 2,300 more points than any player from 2000-01 through the start of this season while shaking off everything from a feud with O’Neal to a sexual assault accusation against him in Colorado – a case that collapsed once the accuser decided not to testify and a civil suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in March 2005.

Nor did those issues permanently damage his worldwide popularity, which may be unmatched among active athletes. Bryant’s jersey is the NBA’s top seller in the United States, Europe and China. Even he was a bit embarrassed by the thunderous “Kobe! Kobe!” chants as the Americans marched during the opening ceremony in Beijing.

“Even LeBron (James) and Dwyane (Wade) and Carmelo (Anthony), those guys were going, ‘What are we, potted plants?”’ U.S. assistant coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But it was unbelievable the response that he had, it really was.”

His competitive fire and fearless clutch play have earned Bryant comparisons to Jordan, which he shies away from. But it speaks to his greatness that of all the players who have been bestowed the “next Jordan” title, Bryant is the only one it’s really stuck with for much time.

During a preseason ESPN telecast of a Lakers game, Jeff Van Gundy noted that if Jordan is the best player ever, and Bryant is the best since Jordan, then Bryant could go down in the top handful of all-time greats if he wins a couple of more titles. Charles Barkley said they’ve had the same discussion on TNT.

“He’s like in the top 10 to 15 right now,” Barkley said. “If Kobe wins a couple more championships, he’ll be close, in the top five or 10.”

Only 31 and surrounded by perhaps his strongest supporting cast yet, there’s still plenty of time for Bryant to finish carving out his place in NBA history.

His place in the last 10 years is secure.

“His desire and will to win is just greater than anybody’s I’ve ever seen personally,” teammate Derek Fisher said. “And so you look at what he’s accomplished in terms of the championships and what he’s done individually, I think it’d be hard to argue that there’s been a better individual within the last 10 years.”

Bryant was on top when the decade started, and he still is when it ends.

Not even Jordan could say that.