BEIJING - Moments before one of the most-watched sporting events in history, the biggest cheers from the Chinese crowd were not for Yao Ming. They were not for anybody from China.
2008 Olympic Games
- Liukin, Johnson go 1-2 for U.S.
- Phelps cruises to sixth Beijing gold
- U.S. beach v-ball women top Norway
- Lochte edges Peirsol for 200 back gold
- Blake blows chances vs. Gonzalez
- Softball squad wins odd doubleheader
- Cuba beats U.S. in 11th inning
- Big three coast in 100M dash prelims
- U.S. men avenge hoops loss to Greece
- Serena Williams ousted in quarters
- U.S. women get 800 free relay bronze
- Vaccaro: Phelps on history's doorstep
- Rosen: Team USA finally looks golden
- Boeck: It's condom mania
- Rosenberg: China's dominance is good
- PHOTOS: Olympic beauties | Mascots
- PHOTOS: Day 7 in Beijing |
- 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1
- PHOTOS: Opening Ceremony
- PHOTOS: U.S. athletes to watch
They were for Kobe Bryant.
"It was amazing," Bryant said afterward. "I mean, look: I had five dunks in one game. The last time I had five dunks in a game, I was like 17. That's all because of the energy of this crowd."
I'm not sure I buy that, but Sunday's game showed that the best American players are even bigger icons abroad than they are in the States. Generally speaking, basketball fans in other countries are not as jaded about American stars as U.S. fans are. They don't worry that hip-hop and tattoos are ruining our culture. They just see Kobe and scream like little kids.
They want a Kobe of their own.
They're going to get one. Some day soon maybe next summer, more likely the summer after that a billionaire from overseas will send a cruise ship full of Euros to America, and the cruise ship will return with a true American hoops superstar.
It is going to happen. When they were asked about it here, the American players basically said that if somebody offered to double their salary, of course they would consider it. The idea that an NBA player would bolt for Europe may shock American fans. But step back for a second.
The key elements here are A) a billionaire who wants an expensive toy to show off; and B) an athlete who wants as much money and worldwide fame as he can get. Is this that hard to imagine? Seriously?
We are used to players taking an extra $1 million a year to go to another city. Why not take an extra $15 million a year to go to another country?
We live in a world where Joe Johnson leaves the contending Suns for the historically inept Hawks, just because he wants his own team. Don't you think some NBA player will want his own continent?
It is going to happen. The only question is who will do it, and when. Bryant recently told Yahoo! Sports that he will weigh offers from European teams when he hits free agency. Is he just tweaking the Lakers? Thinking out loud? I don't know. Probably.
But there are three major downsides to taking this leap, and I'm not sure any of them apply to Bryant.
Downside No. 1: You would have to live in Europe.
This would kill the deal for a lot of players. As a group, NBA players get a bad rap, but I haven't met too many who wish they spent a year studying abroad.
But Bryant spent a large chunk of his childhood in Italy. He loves it there. His favorite player growing up was Italian league star Mike D'Antoni, now the Knicks coach. Moving overseas would not be a big sacrifice for Bryant.
Downside No. 2: By leaving both America and the best basketball league in the world, you would alienate half of U.S. basketball fans.
Bryant is used to that. He has divided the country for years. He is the Mississippi River of the NBA. He even made a commercial about how some people love him and some people hate him. Of course, the commercial didn't include any of the actual reasons why people hate him; as I recall, Kobe said he is hated for winning championships and donating money to charity. But the point is that he is not afraid to alienate.
Downside No. 3: OK, this applies to Kobe ... but really, how much? He's already won three NBA titles. If he wins a fourth with the Lakers next year, he will have proven he can win without Shaquille O'Neal. I can't see LeBron James leaving before he wins an NBA championship; he needs the stamp of legitimacy. If Kobe wins one more title, he'll be as legit as he needs to be.
Going to Europe would allow Bryant, in his own way, to finally surpass Michael Jordan. Isn't this cooler than leaving to play minor-league baseball? Wouldn't Kobe have a chance to be an even bigger global icon than MJ?
It sounds far-fetched. Maybe it is. But let's see how far-fetched it sounds if somebody offers $40 million a year.
Bryant doesn't need the money, of course. None of these guys do. But Bryant is a hyper-competitive person who wants more, more, more. More shots, more money, more of an impact on the game he loves. Maybe he'll go around the world for it. If he doesn't, somebody else will.