LAS VEGAS -- Larry Bird was hanging on 20 years ago. He was 35 years old when he played for the original Dream Team, his back was torturing him and he knew he was going to retire after he received his 1992 Olympic gold medal.
Kobe Bryant is going to turn 34 next month. As of next season he will have spent half of his life playing for the Lakers. He has played at least 300 NBA games and almost 10,000 minutes more than Bird, and after he has won his second Olympic gold medal -- for that is the plan -- he will join with Steve Nash to seek his sixth NBA championship.
He is not focused on retirement. What he is managing to do is the opposite of hanging on. It is remarkable.
"It's hard to believe he's going into his 17th season,'' said Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Suns who is now managing director of the men's Olympic team. "I remember him working out in our gym in Phoenix when he was a high school senior.''
That was in 1996, four years after Bird was gone and two years before Michael Jordan would retire from the Bulls. Bryant has more institutional knowledge of basketball than the rest of the U.S. roster altogether. He had won a couple of NBA championships before any of his fellow Olympians had played a minute in the league. But he doesn't reminisce with his teammates and share a lot of stories. He is not one to dwell on the past.
Ask him what his gold medal of 2008 meant to him, and it's as if he is putting his answer on hold.
"The career as a whole means more and more after you retire, and you sit back and look back at some of the things you accomplished, some of the things you were fortunate to be part of,'' he said before the Olympic team practiced Monday. "And being part of the 'Redeem Team' was really special.''
He will talk about how he is learning to enjoy this opportunity for another Olympics as he approaches the end of his career, and he will anticipate the chance at another championship that he'll have next season because of the trade for Nash. But he is not inclined to dwell on his past. Not yet.
Bryant was a crucial acquisition for USA Basketball four years ago because of his tireless drive to improve and to maintain relevance. Colangelo's goal was to create a program of continuity in which the same players returned to the national team while developing standards of commitment. In 2008 many of the best players were beginning their careers -- LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh. Bryant was able to show them the details of his success. He didn't need to say anything. They could see how hard he worked in order to extend his career and be the best.
"That was really big when he joined us before the Olympics in Beijing,'' said Colangelo. "All of a sudden two or three or four of the other guys were down there working out at the same time. So they were following the leader.''
Bryant no longer hears questions about his ability to lead, not after the gold medal or the two championships of the last four years. He does not rate one achievement as superior to the other because each has different meaning for him.
"It's two different emotions, two different brands,'' he said of the Olympic medal and the NBA rings. "The USA -- you're playing for your entire country and all the history that comes behind that. It's a greater level of significance because of all that history, because we are all united. The differences in religion, policies, whatever it may be, we're all united.''
The message to his younger teammates has been to respect their opponents at the Olympics. He understands the passions of international basketball because he was raised in Italy and France while his father, Joe Bryant, played professionally in Europe. Bryant traces his own grasp of the fundamentals back to the coaching he received with his club team in Italy.
At 6-6 he brings a variety of relevant skills to the Olympics, as shown by his production in the playoffs two months ago with the Lakers. In the final three games of their second-round loss to the Thunder, Bryant was scoring 36, 38 and 42 points.
"Yesterday,'' said an Asian reporter to Bryant, "you said that you are the best player in the post other than Tyson Chandler. That being said...''
And Bryant interrupted him.
"No, no, no,'' said Bryant. "Not `other than Tyson Chandler.' The best post player, period. Tyson Chandler's not in that conversation.''
The rest of the question and Bryant's ensuing response were not so important. He is, in fact, the best post-up threat on the world's best team. After so many achievements and so much time, he continues to discover ground that must be defended, and more success for him to earn.