In group play of its qualifying tournament, the United States built an enormous lead against Venezuela. But late in the second half, Bryant was still playing full-court defense against Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela’s point guard. Bryant picked up a couple of steals before going to the bench, where Boeheim reminded him that the win was in hand.
“I said, ‘Kobe, we’re up 49,’” Boeheim recalled. “And he goes: ‘That don’t matter. I’m getting him, coach.’”
The United States went on to win a gold medal at the Beijing Games, and Bryant played again in 2012 during the team’s gold-medal run in London. By then, Bryant was one of the roster’s elder statesmen, a five-time N.B.A. champion who was content to take on more of a mentorship role. But the fire was still there.
“Kobe’s leadership and fierce determination is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever seen,” Boeheim said. “I think Jordan was that way. I didn’t get to coach him, but I saw him, and I think he was the same way. Every day, every practice, he’s going full out.”
As opponents, Bryant and James were hypercompetitive. But as Bryant neared retirement, their relationship seemed to become more close-knit. Both men had won championships. Both had built legacies that were secure. Both, like Jordan before them, had signature-sneaker deals with Nike. Both were businessmen with growing off-court ambitions, and both were raising young daughters.
After Bryant stepped away from the game for good in 2016 and James signed with the Lakers two years later, the connection between them grew stronger. In the curiously intense world of Lakers fandom, some of the team’s most ardent supporters — so-called Kobe stans to the core — were outraged that James, a player who they felt had hopscotched from team to team, would be wearing purple and gold. But Bryant, who had spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, expressed support for James from the very start.
It was as if the high priest of the Lakers church were offering the sacrament to the team’s newest marquee star, and it went a long way toward softening some fans’ hard feelings.