TEAM USA and the Evolution of Kobe

Kobe Bryant representing Team USA Basketball.

Is it just me or does it seem all but a foregone conclusion that Kobe Bryant has been quite willing to cede alpha male status to LeBron James for the trip the two of them are making to London along with ten or so of their closest friends?

Indeed, based on how the team’s first few exhibitions have played out it seems safe to say the fate of Olympic Team 2012 largely rests in the hands of James, and that seems just fine with the five-time L.A. Lakers champion Bryant, still cheered in most arenas as the game’s most clutch performer.

In a far-ranging, no-holds barred interview with Yahoo! Sports, where he weighs in on everything from his impending retirement to his 2003 sexual assault case to his relationships with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, Bryant is equally loquacious in expressing just why he still may be the best man for the job should team USA find itself in need of any late game, pressure packed heroics.

"It just really teaches you how to let go and how to trust and not try to control everything," Bryant said of his 2004 court proceedings during which he continued to compete and excel in the team’s playoff run. “There’s times where it just seems like days are just endless, like it never going to end. Once you go through something like that, you can’t help but be different.

“That’s real pressure,” he added. “That's life pressure. It’s not hitting the game winning shot. If you make it, you win. If you miss---no. That’s not pressure.”

Given the scope of such prior experience, neither is openly criticizing NBA commissioner David Stern, or speaking out about how he feels the 2012 Olympic team is every bit the equal to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s original Dream Team of 1992,both of which Bryant boldly took the liberty of recently doing, neither of which played to too rave of reviews.

But after 17 seasons, five titles, 14 all-star game appearances and as the originator of as much highlight footage as anyone who’s ever played the game, Kobe Bryant now feels entitled so entitled. Enough of a made-man to now freely speak his mind.

Of his long and infamous feud with Shaq and arguably the premature dissolution of a relationship which had brought both men three titles while yet in their primes, he opines: “It just wasn’t going to work. There were things I wanted to do with my career and I was incapable of going to another level as long as we we’re playing together.”

These days, Bryant lives for the sixth NBA title that--- at least in his mind--- will more or less put him on par with Jordan, the man he clearly patterned so much of his game after, despite all his steadfast denials to the contrary.

“I grew up in Italy, and I never heard of Michael until I was like 13 or 14-years-old,” he said. “By then I was a Lakers fan, Magic Johnson, then Byron Scott, those were my guys.”

That’s vintage Kobe, cunning one minute, reflective the next, all of which is precisely what makes it so difficult to gauge just how much credence one should place in accessing all his talk of retirement when his contract expires in two years.

“I don’t have the same motor,” he says of the prospect of facing the start of his 17th season in just a few weeks. To that, just know that Bryant, second in the league in scoring last season and who scored well over 2,000 points during the NBA’s last full season, now stands just 2,000 point behind Wilt Chamberlain for fourth in the league in all-time scoring, 3,000 behind Jordan for third and only 9,000 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time top spot.

Kobe being Kobe, what do you think the odds are Bryant isn’t at least positioning himself to take a shot? 

Glenn Minnis is a veteran sports and culture writer who has contributed to the likes of ESPN, Vibe and the NFL Magazine. He has also been on staff at AOL Sports, the Chicago Tribune and was the founding sports editor for 360HipHop.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.