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August 2017
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A hero’s Farewell – Why Team USA Needs Kobe Bryant

After officially announcing his retirement, Kobe Bryant expressed his desire to play for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics saying “it would mean the world to me to be around those guys”. However, with the amount of talent around the league, in combination with the very limited amount of spots available on the roster, questions arise as to whether the 37-year old Lakers legend is deserving of a spot on Team USA. However, USA basketball entails a lot more than mere on court performance.

Even though Bryant didn’t attend the mandatory Team USA minicamp on August 11-13, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo is on record saying “Bryant’s made a terrific contribution to USA Basketball, and that’s appreciated” followed by “he is entitled to an opportunity”. Colangelo does mention however, that Bryant needs to earn the spot based on, amongst others, performance.

Let’s face it – Bryant is just not what he used to be. Even though his averages of almost 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assist per game are not that bad, his field goal percentages (29.6 FG% and 21.8 3P%) and shot selection (Bryant averages almost 18 FGA and almost 8 3PA) suggest Bryant has no business amongst the top tier players in the NBA, and thus Team USA basketball. Bryant’s age and recent injury history have turned him into an inefficient volume shooter, and that rarely adds value. However, in the past, Bryant has been praised for being able to take on a secondary role as more of a facilitator rather than a volume shooter when being surrounded by other superstar players.

Plus, how much will Bryant’s on-court performance really matter at the Olympics? Not much. The reality of the situation is that if Bryant were to make the Team USA roster in 2016, he will be near the end of the bench, not playing a lot of minutes.

On top of that, Team USA’s competition is the weakest it has been in quite a while with their biggest challenger in recent years, Spain, declining fast due to age. It can be expected that Team USA will dominate the competition at the Olympics, making the importance of the performance of end-of-the-bench players significantly less important. Even if the unlikely situation occurs that a solid contribution is needed from Bryant, his experience, combined with his skills and basketball IQ will enable him to contribute accordingly. Plus, as Bryant said himself, his offensive performance won’t be his greatest contribution to the team: “How I feel now is that I feel like I can add value from a leadership perspective and a defensive perspective,” Bryant said “I can still move extremely well defensively.”

From a basketball perspective, that’s exactly why Team USA needs people like Bryant. Superstars like Kevin Durant, Dyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, and many more have openly expressed their admiration for Bryant, and how much they love having him around. His unmatched work ethic, competitiveness and countless years of basketball experience elevate even the superstars around him, which is even more true for the younger guys.

A lot of young players like Kyrie Irving have expressed the value Bryant has had to them in the past. The best example of Bryant’s leadership value however, might be Anthony Davis, who was Bryant’s teammate on the 2012 Olympic team without having played a single minute in the NBA yet. Davis on his relationship with Bryant: “He kind of took me under his wing. Wherever he went, I kind of went, and he taught me about the league, taught me about the game. It was really all them guys, but the one I really connected with was Bryant.” This perfectly sums up the value Bryant can still have for the development of the players from Team USA.

However, the biggest problem won’t be Bryant being on the team, but the player who won’t be on the team because of Bryant. So many great talents are having great seasons and are deserving of a spot, especially on the overloaded guard positions (MVP candidates Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry to name a few) and at the three position (amongst which MVP candidates Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard) – which happen to be Bryant’s positions. Still, whilst it is true a lot of players are more deserving of spot based on performance and future prospective, very few of the active players (let alone 12) have worldwide charisma comparable to Bryant’s.

Bryant is not just a basketball player, Bryant is a global trademark. Being one of the most popular players in international basketball history, his popularity in China is unmatched by any other player in the history of the game, not to mention his popularity in Europe and other parts of the world. If Bryant were to join the team, he wouldn’t primarily be a player, he would be an ambassador not only for Team USA, but for the whole NBA and all of basketball. During the 2012 Olympics in London, not even Lebron James came close to getting the attention Bryant got from both the media and fellow athletes. It shows that Bryant deserves tremendous respect amongst athletes outside of basketball, which was apparent (once again) after he announced his retirement with athletes as Lionel Messi saying “It was he who helped me become interested in basketball.”.

For all these reasons, and so many more, Team USA needs to keep Bryant around as long as they possibly can. Plus, as one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, Bryant deserves to go out on top. Ending his career on a historically bad Lakers team would almost be an insult to an undeniable historic career. Therefore, being on Team USA would give Bryant the chance to go out the way a legend of his stature should – as a leader, teacher, ambassador, but most of all – as a winner.

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