Fresh off a dominant performance at the FIBA World Cup in Madrid, Spain resulting in a gold medal, it’s safe to say that the dominance of Team USA is back. But it wasn’t too long ago that the US National Team had lost that aura of invincibility.
Following a three-loss, sixth place performance at the 2006 World Championships, an effort was made to overhaul the entire National Team and Kobe Bryant was one of many stars on the team that played at the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament. It was there that Kobe demanded to guard Brazil’s Leandro Barbosa in the final group stage game.
To that point, Barbosa was the leading scorer in the tournament and Bryant held him to only one made shot. In a memorable sequence, Kobe forced Barbosa to lose his dribble, then dove on the floor to corral the ball, a play that changed the entire attitude of the team according to former Team USA executive Tony Ronzone via Bleacher Report:
I swear that was the turning point. You saw the best player in the world at that time sacrificing his body for a loose ball. That turned us. Great players can play that way. It’s looking in the mirror and saying, ‘We have to play that way.’
This point was not lost on Coach K, who Ronzone says continually showed that play as an example of how the team needed to play:
Coach K would use that play (of Bryant diving for the loose ball), showing a clip of it, to remind everyone that it was ‘We, not I.
Bryant’s fire and competitive spirit is well known throughout the NBA and it was on full display at this tournament and again in the 2008 Olympics.
It was Kobe who took over in the fourth quarter of the Gold Medal game against Spain in those Olympics, ensuring Team USA would take home the victory and re-establish themselves as the best. Something that hasn’t changed since.
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