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It Takes 23 Seconds to Understand Kobe Bryant’s Greatness

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Now that Kobe Bryant’s retirement plans are official, you’re going to read, watch and hear tributes to his greatness on a nonstop loop for the rest of the 2015-16 NBA season.

The five rings, the thousands upon thousands of made shots, the 81-point game — get ready for all of that. And get ready for talking heads, teammates and foes offering up their feelings on one of the greatest players ever, telling us what he meant to each of them. That’s when we’ll hear about the work ethic, the competitive spirit, the 4 a.m. shooting drills, the time Kobe verbally destroyed Rookie X, Y or Z for not playing up to his unreasonable standards.

It’ll get tiring because Bryant’s career has been better and his personality more mythologized than just about anybody’s. So people are going to have a lot to say.

Suggestion: Maybe save yourself some time and watch a grainy, 23-second clip of a play that has no statistical impact on Bryant’s NBA career. That clip, pulled from an Aug. 16, 2008 Olympic pool play meeting between Team USA and Spain, will tell you everything you need to know about Kobe. h/t to Joe Vardon of  Cleveland.com who unearthed it and, I guess, to LeBron James, who brought it up in the first place when asked of his most cherished Kobe memories.

Here it is:

The Competitive Monster

“We’re going to get after it,” Bryant said of himself and Pau Gasol before the game, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Marc Heisler. “He knows it. He knows what’s coming.”

No, Kobe, I don’t think he did.

If you’re reading this, you’re aware of the fact that Gasol was Bryant’s teammate at the time Kobe hit him with the truck stick. By whatever predatory, “I have no friends in other jerseys” logic controlled Bryant’s thinking, though, Gasol wasn’t his Los Angeles Lakers cohort on that day. He was playing for Spain, and Spain wasn’t America. So: mortal enemy.

“I was like, ‘This guy’s all about winning and whoever he’s playing for or who he’s playing with at that point in time,'” James told Vardon. “He really forgot Pau was his teammate. Like he really forgot that he was about to see him in like three weeks in L.A. I swear. It was crazy.”

Such was the un-nuanced calculus by which Bryant lived.

Sensing the Moment

The intervening years make this easy to forget, but that 2008 version of Team USA had a lot to prove and even more to make up for. The American side finished with a bronze medal in 2004, and Spain won gold at the 2006 World Championships. This group, led by Bryant and including James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, was dubbed the Redeem Team.

And Bryant clearly understood early in pool play that redemption wouldn’t come unless Team USA went out and forcibly took it.

Tasked with re-establishing American dominance in international basketball, Kobe went straight-up Juggernaut on the top opponent’s best player…two minutes into the game. Because he knew Team USA needed to see how serious this thing was.

The message was received, as Team USA won gold (and later beat Spain again in the final).

Hardly surprising for a guy who spent his career recognizing and seizing (often brutally) moments. If you think about Bryant and the way he’s risen to so many challenges,  it would actually have been more surprising if he hadn’t mauled Gasol.

Setting an Example

Every one of today’s generation of in-prime stars cite Bryant as an influence. James went on at length about the motivating fear of knowing Bryant was in the gym working every day, getting better. Kevin Durant’s reverence has been equally profound — if often ill-stated.

Bryant has long understood the way his peers view him as a template, a perfect, unattainable ideal of competitiveness and drive. He’s always been careful in his speech, mannerisms and attitudes, acting in a way that only a person who knows he’s being constantly scrutinized does. There was a kind of dual purpose in this, as Bryant seemed to genuinely like the idea of setting an example but also relished the respect and fear his status as a paragon induced in his foes. (Don’t you think he loves hearing James say he was practically afraid of the way Bryant relentlessly worked to get better?)

Add all that up, and Bryant’s decision to plow into Gasol takes on another meaning: He knew the league’s next batch of stars were on that 2008 team, and he knew they were looking to him just as they always had. So by knocking Gasol flat, Kobe was simultaneously showing his teammates how to compete like a crazy person and that he was, in fact, crazy enough to do that to them whenever they next met on an NBA court.

It was kind of genius.

I also like to think the shot on Gasol was a physical manifestation of Bryant’s years-long verbal criticism of the big Spaniard’s toughness. Bryant was also setting an example for Gasol by hitting him like that. Talk about tough love.

So, sure, enjoy the montages and celebrations of Bryant’s greatness. Just know that there are clips like this out there that say more about what made Kobe great than any string-scored video tribute on the jumbotron.

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