Making his way around Nike World Headquarters the other day,
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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."