For the first time since 2004, the United States National Team will make a run at Olympic gold without Kobe Bryant.
The legendary Laker retired in April, but not before collecting plenty of hardware for both club and country. Team USA went 26-0 during Bryant’s tenure, not to mention his unblemished record in exhibitions.
From scrimmages against teammates to gold-medal games, Bryant always seemed to step up when the red, white and blue needed him most.
Alpha vs. Alpha (July 22, 2007)
It was an intersquad scrimmage that ultimately didn’t count for anything, but in front of a packed Las Vegas crowd and TV audience Bryant showed why he became the leader of a team loaded with superstars.
Donning navy for USA Basketball’s Blue vs. White Game, Bryant found his team entering the fourth quarter down by six. But the Laker had been shooting fire all night long and saved his best for last. With 1:45 left he drained a game-tying step-back 3-pointer over LeBron James, who had scored 18 points while battling Bryant.
When the opposition hit a free throw to take the lead, Bryant came right back down and splashed a fallaway over James to steal it right back. However, Jason Kidd’s ensuing layup put Blue down by one again with time about to run out.
No stranger to pressure, Bryant responded by calmly dribbling to the top of the key, pump-faking longtime rival Tayshaun Prince and sinking the go-ahead 21-footer with six seconds remaining. Bryant was even Blue’s clutch performer on the other end, as he hounded James on the final possession, which ended with a missed buzzer-beater.
Bryant finished the night with 26 points and five assists in just 31 minutes. He was cooking on the offensive side, shooting 10-of-22 with four 3-pointers, while just as impressive defensively with five steals.
Deja Vu (Aug. 8, 2012)
Given his strong finish in London, it can be easy to forget how much Bryant struggled during pool play when he had more fouls than made shots. Luckily for the U.S., a familiar foe was awaiting in a familiar setting.
Just like in Beijing, the Americans faced Australia in the quarterfinals. And — just like in 2008 when he scored an Olympic career-high 25 points — Bryant dominated.
At first, it appeared that the Boomers might have finally figured out Bryant, as the 34-year-old was held scoreless in the first half. Australia took advantage of some lax American defense, opening the third quarter with 11 unanswered points to chop the USA’s lead to three.
From there, Bryant started getting involved, dishing back-to-back assists to Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler. From there, he took over the scoring role himself. Up 64-58 midway through the frame, Bryant drilled a 3-pointer, poked away a steal on the other end and splashed another triple from the same spot.
He truly ignited halfway through the fourth quarter, bombarding his opponents with 3’s on back-to-back-to-back-to-back possessions. His four treys in 66 seconds gave him a team-high 20 points, allowing the U.S. to pull ahead for the 119-86 victory.
Gold and Bronze (Aug. 30, 2007)
Just three years prior in Athens, Argentina had embarrassed the United States on the Olympic stage en route to the country’s first gold medal. But at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship in Vegas, the Americans trotted out a revamped, star-filled roster.
Bryant wasted no time showing the gold medalists why he was the NBA’s reigning back-to-back scoring champion by racking up 15 points in the first quarter alone, giving the U.S. a 28-13 lead.
Bryant didn’t let up from there, providing the night’s highlights with a reverse dunk and twisting, and-1 layup. He consistently knifed through the defense and drained three 3-pointers to finish with 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting in just 23 minutes. On the flip side, the 28-year-old swiped four steals to help counter Luis Scola’s 20-point night.
The Americans won handily, 91-76, to secure the top seed in the tournament’s semifinal round. Bryant’s explosion pushed the USA — which needed to finish in the top two to qualify for the 2008 Olympics — on the cusp of booking its ticket to Beijing.
Red, White and Blue Finale (Aug. 12, 2012)
Six years older than his closest teammate, Bryant spent the majority of his run in London letting his fellow American teammates shoulder the brunt of the offense. He took that same approach in the gold-medal rematch against Spain, scoring 17 points while Durant dropped 30 and James added 19.
Bryant chose his spots well, seemingly providing a bucket whenever the U.S. needed one. After the Spaniards grabbed a quick 12-8 lead, the Laker knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in a 32-second burst to retake the lead.
Spain snagged the edge again halfway through the third before Bryant drove to the hoop for a slam dunk to tie at 68. Down 71-70 shortly after, he stuck his defender on a screen, hit another triple and the Americans never trailed again.
Despite a huge 24-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist performance from his Los Angeles teammate, Pau Gasol, Bryant’s steady hand helped end his national team career with a gold medal around his neck after the 107-100 triumph.
A Golden Performance (Aug. 24, 2008)
After the United States flopped at the 2004 Athens Olympics, general manager Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski put their focus on bringing the NBA’s superstars together and locking them into longterm commitments to the national team. At the forefront of the recruiting class was Bryant, and he rewarded them when the gold medal was on the line.
In the championship game of the Beijing Olympics, Spain cut the Americans’ lead to two with just eight minutes left and three years of work at risk of being for naught. Bryant took over from there, immediately hit a runner in the paint. He followed with a pair of assists to key a 12-2 American run.
Later in the quarter, Bryant sent the Beijing crowd — and his USA teammates — into a frenzy by swishing a corner 3-pointer on one end and knocking away an alley-oop pass to Gasol on the other.
However, Spain — despite losing to the U.S. by 37 just eight days before — refused to go down easily. Rudy Fernandez led the Spaniards with 22 points and Gasol pitched in 21, but Bryant’s finest moment also expelled half of Spain’s two-headed monster.
Leading by five with 3:20 left, Bryant caught the ball and used a jab step to bait Fernandez into contact while rising up for a triple from the left wing. Fernandez fouled out as the ball went through the net, then Bryant raised a finger to his lips, symbolically shushing Spain’s comeback bit.
He completed the four-point play and added a floater and technical free throw in the final 72 seconds to cap off his 20-point, six-assist night. Dwyane Wade provided a game-high 27 points in the 118-107 win (made larger by late-game free throws), but Bryant, the reigning NBA MVP, was the clutch performer, scoring 13 in the fourth quarter alone.
The gold-medal presentation minutes later validated the Redeem Team’s journey and gave Bryant distance from the Lakers’ loss in the NBA Finals just two months before. Beijing served as the starting point for Bryant’s three-year championship run, as he then led Los Angeles to the next two NBA titles.