MIAMI (AP) — Kobe Bryant is passing the Olympic torch.
Bryant revealed Saturday that he is removing himself from consideration for a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this summer, meaning the five-time NBA champion’s retirement begins officially when his 20th and final season with the Los Angeles Lakers ends.
Bryant made the announcement in Salt Lake City before the Lakers’ game against the Utah Jazz. He has informed USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski, saying it’s time for others to enjoy the Olympic journey.
“Since my retirement announcement, I’m able to watch these guys in a different light,” said Bryant, a gold medalist in 2008 and 2012. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that they are the future of this game. These are the guys who deserve the spots in Rio. These are the guys who people need to watch and root for. These are the guys to show fans where this game is going in the future.”
He tipped his hand on Thursday, when he said it’s time for others to “see how many championships they can win, see how many gold medals they can win.”
On Saturday, he made his intentions clear.
“I’ve had my moment,” Bryant said in a pregame news conference.
Bryant told at least one other player of the news beforehand. When the Lakers played at Golden State on Thursday night, he said Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa — a Brazilian — approached him and said “See you in Rio.”
“I just turned around and went, ‘Nooooo,’” Bryant said.
The NBA’s No. 3 all-time scorer, Bryant worried that if he took a spot on the 12-man roster and then could not play because of injury — and he’s dealt with major ones in recent years — he could wind up hurting the U.S. chance at gold and take a spot from a younger player who deserved an Olympic shot.
When wearing the red, white and blue, Bryant’s record was perfect. He was on five different USA Basketball national teams over his career, with those teams combining for a 36-0 record in international competition. He has told Krzyzewski and Colangelo that he is willing to help the national team in unofficial ways going forward.
It just won’t be as a player.
“If they want me to come down and speak to the guys, I will, but that’s about it,” Bryant said. “As beautiful as it would be to play for the country — I mean, I love our country — when I say my last game, it’s going to be my last game.”
Bryant revealed to AP in November that “it would mean the world” to him to have one more Olympic opportunity, both for the camaraderie that would have come from being teammates with other NBA stars one more time but also because he has long thought of himself as someone with a unique global perspective. He spent part of his youth in Italy, has business relationships now all over the globe and is still one of the most popular athletes worldwide.
His head and his heart wanted to go to Rio. The rest of his 37-year-old body doesn’t seem so willing to cooperate.
His shoulder is aching and there’s concern about his Achilles. He’s missed eight games already this season and entered Saturday shooting just under 35 percent — a career-worst.
His last season has been an emotional one. Fans have celebrated him on the road — they even cheered for him wildly in Boston, with Celtics fans giving the longtime Laker rival a long, warm salute — and he is almost certain to be the leading vote-getter for the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto next month.
“Kobe will inevitably go down as one of the greatest ever to play this game,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday.
Still, the grind of a 20th NBA season — after his last two were basically destroyed by injuries — is taking a clear toll, and when the Lakers’ season ends in April it would obviously be difficult for Bryant to keep things going through the Olympics in August.
So he decided the best move would be let others carry the U.S. flag.
“I think it’s pretty sweet to have the final game be in a Lakers uniform,” Bryant said.