|Aug 05||Men's Basketball Team Practice Gallery|
LONDON (AP) -- Kobe Bryant is the most popular basketball player on the planet, the star of stars in a glittering galaxy of them on the U.S. men's Olympic team. His offensive repertoire is second-to-none.
So far at the London Games, though, Kobe hasn't been Kobe.
Through four games, Bryant looks more like a lost American tourist wandering around Trafalgar Square than one of the world's most prolific players.
Other than a four-minute stretch in the historic, 83-point mashing of Nigeria, Bryant hasn't gone on one of those solo scoring sprees that have helped define him.
"I haven't had to," he said, surrounded by cameras and reporters before practice Sunday. "I don't have to, not on this team."
At least not yet.
He's averaging a measly 9.0 points per game yet the Americans (4-0) can clinch first place in their group Monday with a win against Argentina (3-1) before beginning the medal round later in the week.
With LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and (fill in your favorite All-Star's name here), the U.S. team has had more than enough offensive firepower to handle France, Tunisia, Nigeria and hold off Lithuania, which ran its offense to perfection and pushed the Americans deep into the fourth quarter before losing 99-94 on Saturday.
But the time will come, and it may be fast approaching, when the U.S. team may need Bryant to take over a game. There will be a moment when Bryant will have to drain one of those patented fadeaway jumpers or freeze a defender with a shoulder shimmy and drop in some twisting layup like only he can.
Is Bryant ready?
"Scoring is what I do," he said. "I can score in my sleep."
At 34, and in his second Olympics, Bryant has a different role on this U.S. squad than he had on the one that captured gold four years ago in Beijing.
He's the elder statesman outside the gym, the team ambassador who caused a stir at Wimbledon the other day when he showed up to watch Roger Federer but who can't take his family to see Big Ben without being mobbed. On the floor, Bryant doesn't have to score like he has to with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The lighter workload suits Bryant, whose enjoying the chance to refine other skills this summer.
"It's fun for me," he said. "I get a chance to work on other parts of my game, like shooting into the passing lanes and experimenting with other things defensively. I just try to work on parts of my game with this team."
Bryant's not saying he can't score or won't score. He's just biding his time until he must score -- and that may be soon.
He sat out most of the U.S. team's first two games against France and Tunisia, scoring a combined 14 points in just 21 minutes. It didn't help that he got into early foul trouble both times, forcing U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski to keep the 13-time All-Star on the bench.
He played fewer minutes than any American against Tunisia, raising suspicions Bryant might be hurt.
He ended that talk quickly.
Challenged before the game by Durant to "show me something," Bryant showed no mercy on Nigeria, scoring 14 points in the first four minutes and setting the tone as the Americans posted the highest-scoring game in Olympic history.
"I told him, 'it's time to turn it up, I want to see what you got,'" Durant said. "And you've seen it in these last few games, fadeaway jump shots from the corner, he can score so quickly. I looked up and he had only shot the ball a few times and he had 14 points in the first.
"We don't have to say to him, 'Hey, Kobe go get some baskets.' He can go get it on his own and that's the greatest part of this team."
So although Bryant's numbers aren't up to his high-scoring standards, he's not concerned. It was much the same in China in 2008, when he focused on his defense and sharing the ball before scoring 20 points, including a clutch four-point play in the closing minutes, of the gold-medal game against Spain.
If the need for points or a big shot arises, Bryant promises to deliver.
"In Beijing I didn't look to do it (score) at all, and in the last few whatever minutes of the Spain game, I kicked it up another gear. That's what I do. We got LeBron. We got KD (Durant). We got all these guys here and for me I just like going out and working on my game."
Bryant seems at ease as a supporting member of U.S. team's dream cast.
Still a star, but one willing to share the stage.
"I think this is a relief for him," Anthony said. "He doesn't have to do too much. He's gearing up for the season. We laugh about it on the bus and in practice. He's loving this moment right now, not having to be the key focal point on this team."
That may change.
In the next few days, the U.S. is likely to find itself in the clutches of another back-and-forth game like the one against Lithuania, where every possession matters. James took over down the stretch Saturday, willing the Americans to victory through sheer force and unmistakable power.
Next time, it might be Bryant.
"That's what he do," Anthony said. "We're not worried about him. The games that we've had so far, we didn't really need him to be Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and I don't think he wants to do that here, and I don't think he needs to do that. What he's been doing for us, he's fine with that.
"He's playing the way he's playing and we're winning games. Trust me, that's all Kobe cares about."