(AFP) – Aug 21, 2008
BEIJING (AFP) — National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Kobe Bryant, staring down his 30th birthday, isn't feeling his age.
Perhaps it's the rejuvenating effect of the United States' unbeaten run to the semi-finals of the Olympic basketball tournament, with an average margin of victory over their six opponents of 32 points.
Maybe it's the adoration of Chinese basketball fans, to whom Bryant is the face of the hugely popular NBA and a bigger draw even than home-grown NBA star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.
Certainly, Bryant is assured that when he returns home from Beijing, potentially with a gold medal around his neck, he will find his Los Angeles Lakers gearing up for a serious run at an NBA title.
"I honestly feel younger now than I did last year or a couple of years ago," Bryant says. "My legs feel great, and I feel good."
Bryant, who is averaging 14.7 points and 21.5 minutes per game in Beijing, says he planned to spend his birthday Saturday taking in more Olympic sports - the men's football gold medal match and maybe the US women basketballers in their gold medal game.
"I've been trying to catch synchro (swimming) but I haven't been able to yet," he said. "You're laughing, but I'm dead serious."
One thing Bryant doesn't expect is a lot of heckling from the young guns on the US team.
"They know they've got to see me come October," Bryant said. "So they're not going to say too much."
Bryant has shown a few signs of wear and tear. Two years ago he had knee surgery and he will have a procedure to repair a ligament in his right little finger after the Games.
But Jason Kidd, at 35 the elder statesman of the US team, says Bryant hasn't lost anything that counts, and it shows in his relentless pursuit of a first Olympic gold.
"He's never relaxed. He's a competitor. He doesn't know how to relax," Kidd said. "He wants to win. We're in practice with the select team and we don't even have the scoreboard on and he wants to keep score. He's hungry, because this is something that he wants to put on his resume that he doesn't have."
Bryant garnered his first NBA MVP award last season, his 12th in the league. He led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers' title bid, unexpected at the start of the season, helped the 10-time All-Star and two-time league scoring champion continue to regain the popularity and sponsor drawing power that dwindled with a rape charge five years ago.
The charge eventually was thrown out when the woman wouldn't testify against him.
Bryant was also targeted by critics for his feud with one-time Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal.
None of that has affected his popularity in China, where his jersey outsells Yao's.
Bryant's several previous trips to the NBA-mad country to conduct clinics on behalf of sponsor Nike have given him a relationship with Chinese fans.
"His popularity is probably the No. 1 athlete out here," said current NBA scoring champ LeBron James of Cleveland. "It has been unbelievable to see how big he is as an athlete.
"I think it's because of basketball of course, but I think a lot of it is his personality also."
"Kobe might want to think about moving here," teammate Carmelo Anthony said.
With the prospect of more NBA glory looming, it's not likely.
"I'm in a great spot right now with the US team, and the team back home, improvements that we've made, and feeling good," Bryant said.
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