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Regarded as one of the best American basketball players of all time, Kobe Bryant played a decisive role in Team USA’s Olympic triumphs of 2008 and 2012.
Born in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant is the youngest of three offspring of former basketball player and coach, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. By the age of three, he was already at home on the basketball court. Having spent the early part of his childhood in Italy, where his father was playing for the Rieti club, in 1996, aged 18 and 158 days, Bryant became the youngest player in history to start a game in the NBA - the US professional basketball league - when he made his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers. He would remain with the Lakers for the rest of his career, helping them to win five NBA titles and notching a record 30,000 points in the process.
Nicknamed “the Black Mamba”, Bryant and his co-star LeBron James were the leaders of the USA’s ‘Redeem Team’, which went to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing tasked with exorcising the demons of Athens 2004, where the USA had been eliminated in the semi-finals by Argentina. Bryant was in brilliant form throughout the tournament, not least in the final against Spain. With Team USA clinging to the most fragile of leads (91-89) with eight minutes left, Kobe went into overdrive, making his presence felt on every inch of the court. In the final quarter, he scored 13 points, chipped in with three assists, and produced two vital blocks at the other end to help secure a 118-107 victory in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball matches of all time.
In 2009 and 2010, Bryant clinched his fourth and fifth NBA titles and was voted MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the final each time. At the age of 34, he then focused his attentions on helping Team USA defend their Olympic crown at London 2012. “It’s a huge honour for me, because I’ve always wanted to play for [Team USA],” he said, before revealing that London would be his Olympic swansong. “This will definitely be my last Olympic Games so it has a lot of symbolism to it.”
As captain of Team USA, Bryant lit up the London stage with each one of his appearances. Among the numerous highlights was a personal haul of 20 second-half points against Australia, which included four consecutive three-pointers, several decisive actions in the semi-final against Argentina, and 17 valuable points in the final against Spain, which helped secure a 107-100 victory and a second consecutive Olympic gold.
After beginning another fine NBA season for the Lakers, Kobe suffered a serious Achilles’ tendon injury in April 2013. During his recovery, he joined forces with the IOC ahead of International Olympic Day on 23 June, with a ‘call-out to people around the world to get involved: “I can’t run, I can’t jump and I can’t swim yet,” he said. “So I need you guys to pick up the slack for me and be doubly active.” It was a message that typified the boundless enthusiasm and civic spirit of this truly extraordinary athlete.