Led by NBA stars James Lebron and Kobe Bryant, the US basketball team arrived in Beijing to try to conquer the Olympic title that they have not won since 1992 in Barcelona.
Kobe Bryant on Tuesday said winning Olympic gold was more important than the NBA title, as he bids to polish his legacy by returning Team USA to world basketball supremacy.
The triple NBA champion, who heads a star-studded line-up hotly tipped to end an eight-year international drought, answered immediately when asked which prize mattered more.
"Gold medal," said Bryant, wading into the club-versus-country debate.
"You're playing for your country, there's more at stake. I think when you're playing for the NBA championship, you're actually playing for a brand, you're playing for whatever motivation -- proving people wrong or whatever," he said.
"When you put on a USA uniform, you're playing for something bigger than all that. You're representing your country, and our country is going up against the other country, trying to prove who's best. For me, that holds more weight."
Team USA has long battled for the services of top NBA players in a row that has been partly blamed for a series of flops on the world stage.
After embarrassing bronze-medal finishes at Athens 2004 and the 2006 World Championships, a core national team has been established, raising hopes of a better showing in Beijing.
Reigning MVP Bryant, NBA scoring champion LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are now part of a daunting squad vying to claim the USA's first Olympic title since Sydney 2000.
Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and 2000 gold-medallist Jason Kidd are also in the gambling enclave of Macau for warm-up games against Turkey and Lithuania. The team got to work on Tuesday with their first practice on Chinese soil.
"You're here on some serious, serious business because this is the opportunity of a lifetime," Bryant said.
"So it's a little bit serious. You can't really go out and have as much fun as you would like to but it's still great to be here."
Bryant revealed that he would undergo surgery on a long-standing right finger injury immediately after the Games, which could keep him sidelined for up to five weeks.
"I'm definitely set on surgery as soon as I get back," he said. "We'll go and talk about it and do it and get ready for the season.
"I heal pretty fast normally, so I should be back in no time."
Meanwhile coach Mike Krzyzewski said he would not name a captain but that Bryant, James and Kidd were natural leaders for the group.
"We're not going to name a captain, I don't think we need to do that, but those three guys are three key guys for us," the coach said.
"Somebody can give you a job or title but that doesn't mean they're going to respect you in that job or title. We haven't given a title but there's that instinctive respect that should be there for Kobe."
Bryant, who turns 30 during the Olympics, is probably facing his last shot at a gold medal and another chance to turn the page on the 2003 rape charges -- later thrown out -- which once threatened to derail his career.
A feud that ended with team-mate Shaquille O'Neal leaving the Los Angeles Lakers, and his own pre-season comments last year about leaving the team, have also damaged his standing among fans.
The 10-time All-Star responded to their boos by winning his first NBA Most Valuable Player award in his 12th season, averaging 28.3 points a game and leading the Lakers to the finals against the Boston Celtics.
"What I try to do is do what I do best, which is lead by example," said Bryant, the second-oldest Olympic squad member after Kidd.
"The intensity with which I play the game is the part that I really bring to the table more than anything else."
USA play Turkey on Thursday and Lithuania on Friday before facing Russia and Australia in Shanghai. Their first Olympic group game is against hosts China on August 10.
Date created : 2008-07-31