LONDON — The Olympic experience means different things to different athletes.
There are nearly 15,000 of them here competing, and none more recognizable than the elder statesman of the U.S. Men’ Senior National Team, Kobe Bryant, who is competing in the Summer Games for the second straight time.
Unlike many of his fellow athletes, Bryant has to pick and choose his spots when trying to enjoy the city and the Games, what with millions of people filling the streets and transit routes on their way to and from events — as well as sightseeing.
For a player who has experienced most everything basketball has to offer, Bryant savors these days and moments at this stage of his career. After years of NBA superstardom, Bryant has mastered the art of blending into a big crowd in a big city at night. And he’s already squeezed a little sightseeing in around London.
“I walked around a little bit last night, walked right by Big Ben and stuff,” Bryant said. “Got a chance to hang out a little bit. Actually, at night-time the cool breeze feels pretty good.”
He got recognized plenty, but kept it moving for the most part.
“I walk really fast, I walk really fast,” he said with a smile. “And at night-time when you got the hoodie on, it’s pretty good.”
Bryant did the same in Barcelona when the U.S. Team played exhibition games there, avoiding the crush of the crowd as best he could while trying to steal a few minutes to enjoy some the surroundings.
“It really depends on how fast you walk,” he said. “You have to walk really fast. Sometimes they’ll do a little double take, and by the time they’re doing the double take you’re already like a half a mile up the road.”
For a player who grew up in Italy, there are parts of the European lifestyle that Bryant misses these days. Especially considering his mere presence can cause a rock star-like stir in most any setting.
“I can’t do that and yeah, I do miss it,” he said of being able to sit at a cafe and relax like anyone else. “I grew up in that slow place being able to just chill and run around as a kid, play soccer and just be out there and in touch with one another. It’s tough [not being able to do that anymore].”
Some of his teammates marvel at his ability to compartmentalize as others make such a fuss about and around him.
“I honestly don’t know how he and LeBron [James] do it,” Kevin Love said. “They get the rock star treatment everywhere we go. It was like that in Las Vegas, in Washington D.C., in Manchester and Barcelona and now here. It’s the same thing that happens when they come to Minnesota during the NBA season. It’s non-stop attention and adulation, and as much as we love doing this and love the life that this affords us and our families, I can’t imagine dealing with it on that level 365 days a year for 24 hours a day.”
Bryant knows that he won’t have to put up with it, at this level, forever.
This is his last Olympics, 23-under rule or not, so he’s trying to make it count. The gold medal is obviously the first order of business, but spending quality time with his own teammates and coaches ranks up there, too. That’s why he feels no pressure to play the alpha dog role on this team and is willing to cede the spotlight (and the shots) to Kevin Durant, James, Carmelo Anthony and others.
“I get plenty of shots during the [NBA] regular season,” Bryant said. “I don’t need plenty of shots right now. My arm could use some time off.”
There’s also the added bonus of being able to soak up the time he can with some of the other athletes. They are all things he knows will go away when he retires.
And despite reports that he would consider retirement in two years, when his current deal with the Los Angeles Lakers expires, Bryant said he’s only given it a passing thought.
“Sure, I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It’s crossed my mind. Absolutely. But I don’t put much thought it in it.”
When one reporter joked that Bryant would play until he’s 40, he scoffed at the idea.
“Yeah, playing against y’all,” he said, “probably at the YMCA somewhere … busting y’all’s [expletive].”
Still, there is a real sense on his part, a perfectly understandable one, that all of this will come to an end at some point in the not-so-distant future. And when it does, Bryant acknowledged that there will be a serious transition period for him, like there has been for countless others before him.
“You’re accustomed to doing something your entire life,” he said, “and all of a sudden it’s gone … it takes a lot of adjustment.”