Kobe jumping for joy at being back in the championship hunt again

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Making his way around Nike World Headquarters the other day, Kobe Bryant is talking about the shoe that has become an Internet sensation. The sneakers have generated buzz not so much for their sleek design or innovative technology but for the fact that when he puts them on, Bryant apparently can jump over a speeding Aston Martin.

"I have superhuman strength," Bryant says of his leaping ability in the ad he filmed in Los Angeles at the end of March. "I have new nickname. I've retired the Black Mamba; my new nickname is Cape."

If the ad for the Nike Hyperdunk seems off-the-wall, Bryant's description of the shoe, which won't be released until July, just before he wears them in the Olympics, is equally bizarre.

"I'm a Discovery Channel lunatic," he says. "I get a lot of inspiration from animals and sharks and how they use their natural abilities. I wanted to incorporate that into my shoe. If I get too Jedi on you, let me know, but I get into a room with the designers and I'm telling them about myself and how I play. When they come back with this shoe, it's literally a part of you, if that makes any sense whatsoever."

Another ad that has drawn considerable attention is Bryant's split-screen spot with Shaquille O'Neal in which their faces are juxtaposed into one as they talk about the NBA playoffs.

"I had no idea they were going to put me with him; it was like beauty and the beast," Bryant says jokingly. "No, they told us that they would pair me with Shaq to hype the playoffs and we all fed into it."

Bryant can laugh and joke about commercial spots this time of year because for the first time since O'Neal departed in 2004, Bryant and the Lakers actually have something to smile about at season's end. The Lakers have locked up the best record in the Western Conference, a feat they've accomplished only one other time since 1990. Meanwhile, Bryant, with strong recent performances against New Orleans and San Antonio, is closing in on his first MVP award.

"In the past, you look at the '80s when Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird and all those guys played, the way the MVP was voted on was slighted different than it is now," Bryant says. "I take a lot of pride in being nominated for it because the way it seems to be judged on now is how well you make your teammates better, and the one criticism that everybody had of me was that I didn't make my teammates better. So being in this final race for the MVP means I'm finally doing something right in terms of proving my critics wrong."

It's been a trying four-year odyssey back to championship relevancy for Bryant, who went from playing in four NBA Finals in five years to missing the postseason his first year without O'Neal and losing to the Suns in the first round the past two seasons.

"It feels good to be in the hunt now," Bryant says. "That's all you can ask for in life is to have an opportunity. I might not dance at the party, but at least I got invited. You know what I mean? The last few years have been very difficult, especially being in the Western Conference, but here we are with an opportunity to win it all. My role is to keep the ship rolling; it's not to score 35 points a night anymore or score 50 or 60 points. My job is to basically keep everyone moving in one direction and having one focus, which is winning the title."

Bryant finally embraced his new role this season after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in a February trade. Not only did the trade change Bryant's outlook on the game but it also changed his view of the team long term and, in all likelihood, kept him from leaving the Lakers. He had continuously demanded a trade during the offseason before realizing that nothing would happen until he was able to opt out of his contract after next season. With Gasol's arrival, now that doesn't even appear to be a possibility. Bryant brushes off questions about his old trade demands as if they were a bad dream that he's trying to forget.

"Me encanta [I love him]," Bryant says when asked about the Spaniard. "Pau ... man, he's unbelievable. People didn't really understand how good he was because he was in Memphis. We all know to win a championship you at least have to have a one-two punch, and that's what we have now with myself and Pau. When Andrew [Bynum] comes back, we'll have that left jab, right cross, left hook."

For Bryant, returning the Unites States to the top of international basketball at this summer's Beijing Olympics is almost as important as reestablishing the Lakers as a championship contender. Team USA hasn't won a gold medal in the World Championships or Olympics since 2000.

"The difference between USA Basketball now as opposed to the first Dream Team is [that] when the Dream Team played, it was such a novelty and all the players from Argentina and Turkey and wherever still had posters of Magic and Michael and all these guys on their wall," Bryant says. "So it was something where they were in awe of them. As opposed to now, where, now this might be a stretch, but if you go to Manu [Ginobili's] house, I don't think he has a poster of me in his bedroom."

Some within the Lakers' organization have expressed concern about Bryant's playing for the national team so soon after the playoffs considering the torn ligament in his right pinkie. The injury requires surgery that will be delayed until late August or early September, meaning Bryant might not be ready for the starting of training camp next season.

"What are they going to do, suspend me for next season?" Bryant says. "There's been concern, but they know the finger's not going to get any worse. I've been playing with it for a couple months, and I'll get hit on it every once in a while, but the pain will go away and there's nothing more that I can do to it. I have two tendons that are completely torn and I have a fracture in the pinkie, so all the damage I can do to it is pretty much done."

Bryant's first trip to the Olympics is already shaping up to be an eventful one, with protests raging around the world over China's role in the genocide in Darfur and the violence in Tibet. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies.

"There has been a lot of conversation about what our country should do in terms of the Olympics and everything that is going on, but I think we can use our opportunity to turn a negative into a positive," says Bryant, who doesn't plan on skipping the opening ceremonies. "The positive would be raising awareness for what's going on. If there's a silver lining in this whole situation, that could be it. There's a stage now created for the whole world to see what's going on and for everybody to jump in and help out. The role that we play is to try to raise awareness toward what's going on."

If Bryant is able to lead the national team to a gold medal, possibly on the heels of winning his first MVP and first NBA title without O'Neal, it would usher in another milestone moment for the suddenly older, wiser Bryant.

"If we win the gold medal, it will happen on my birthday [Aug. 23]," Bryant says. "That would be a heck of a day. Win the gold medal and celebrate your 30th birthday. That's a good day right there."