Let's make one thing clear. This is not an affront on Kobe Bryant's skill set, which still places him among the sport's elite, even after 16 seasons in the NBA.
But for the first time in Kobe's career, one of the greatest players in basketball history seems content with simply being a member of the supporting cast on the U.S. Olympic team—a somewhat unexpected twist that has taken shape in multiple facets this summer.
Bryant, 33, stirred the pot earlier this month when he stated that the present version of Team USA could defeat the hallowed 1992 Olympic squad, affectionately known as the "Dream Team."
Bryant, the most accomplished member of the NBA's group of elder statesmen (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, etc.), has reached the point in his career where he can say just about anything he wants and get away with it.
The man owns five rings, once scored 81 points in a single game, is the NBA's fifth all-time leader in points and has an Olympic gold medal, which he earned as a member of the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing. Bryant was the third-leading scorer on the '08 squad, averaging 15 points per game in eight contests.
But four years and two NBA title runs later, we're seeing Bryant adjust to a new role on Team USA. Surrounded by players who grew up watching him win championship rings with Shaquille O'Neal, the future Hall of Famer is simply a supplemental piece on a roster filled with young talent.
Sure, he still starts the game on the court. The greatest player of his era has earned that honor, and coach Mike Krzyzewski clearly agrees in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
"I really like Kobe a lot. He's easy to coach. He buys into everything. He'll do whatever he thinks he needs to do to bring about a championship. He's proven it, and he wants to prove it again. There are lot of people who prove it once and never want to do it again. He's uncommon. He wants to prove it over and over again. There is nothing bad about Kobe Bryant."
But with a bench brimming with superb subs with substantially less tread on their tires like Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala and James Harden, it's apparent that Bryant is a rotational player at this point. Only a few members of Team USA—LeBron James, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Durant—will be necessary pieces of nearly every rotation Coach K composes.
Bryant scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting in a 113-59 victory over the Dominican Republic last Thursday. Durant's 21 first-half points paved the way to a convincing opening win for the Americans.
On Monday evening in Washington D.C., it was LeBron James leading the team with 30 points in a 80-69 win. Bryant was practically an afterthought.
But that's OK.
Since Los Angeles jettisoned Shaq to the Miami Heat in 2004, Bryant has pulled the Lakers' sled through good times and bad. He absolutely had to be a primary scoring threat on the 2008 Olympic squad in order for that group to claim gold and become the "Redeem Team."
Now, in 2012, we're seeing a different kind of Kobe. He's grinning more, talking smack with his idol Michael Jordan and he's taking fewer shots.
It's as if, overnight, the decisive superstar has embarked on his swan song. Earlier on Monday, Bryant told Yahoo! Sports reporter Graham Bensinger that he's considering retirement when his current contract with Los Angeles expires after the 2013-14 season.
“I’ve been playing for 17 years now — next year will be my 17th, and when I’m (age) 35 it will be my 18th (year) in the league,” Bryant explained. “That’s a long time to be playing. You know, it will be the last year of my contract and I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll be playing any longer than that.”
At this point, it appears Bryant's sole ambition is matching Jordan with six NBA championships. Like it or not, for countless young NBA fans who are too young to remember Jordan's greatness, Kobe is essentially MJ in their eyes.
We all recall the tagline of Nike’s global marketing campaign that made Air Jordan sneakers an unbelievably hyped commodity for the better part of two decades. “Be Like Mike” reached just about every corner of the world. Billboards from Tokyo to Tallahassee featuring Jordan’s ever-ascending silhouette gave athletes something to reach for.
He often challenged the limits of gravity and was once described as “God disguised as Michael Jordan” by legend Larry Bird (via NBA.com). Perhaps, most importantly, MJ saved Earth from likely destruction when he teamed up with Bugs Bunny and Newman from Seinfeld to defeat an evil alien race in a hotly contested pick-up basketball game.
While the rest of us who grew up in the '90s did all we could to be like Mike, a basketball prodigy living in Philadelphia’s Main Line district embarked on a hoops odyssey that would become an unspoken obsession of dethroning Jordan and all others who stood between him and the title of the single greatest player to ever grace a basketball court.
That thrilling youngster became simply known as Kobe and is now an aging superstar with a championship ring for each finger on his right hand and a focus on accomplishing a seemingly impossible task—be better than Mike.
That still appears to be Bryant's main focus, especially in the midst of his humorous ego-driven spat with Jordan over "Dream Team" comparisons. But perhaps, he's done pressing so hard to prove his worth.
Bryant looks almost relieved to play the role of "just another guy" during Team USA's 2012 Olympic run, as he suddenly sees the end of his playing career creeping closer on the horizon. Throw in the fact that Steve Nash is now a Laker and it becomes apparent that Kobe is ready and willing to relinquish ball-handling duties in order to increase his chances of tasting ultimate victory a few more times.
Before he chases another NBA championship, Bryant will play his part—perhaps one smaller than we're accustomed to—on Team USA this summer. As Kobe slides into his newfound "veteran presence" role, let's be sure to enjoy his adaptability and acceptance of the age-old truth in athletics.
No one can be king of the mountain forever.