Basketball

Bryant gearing up for Team USA debut

LAS VEGAS - United States coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked Wednesday what he planned to give Kobe Bryant for his 29th birthday next week.

"We should use a reverse birthday thing, and he should get something for us - a qualifying berth in the Olympics," Krzyzewski said. "That'll be a great birthday present for everyone."

Bryant will make his U.S. debut Aug. 22 in the FIBA Americas championships, with the Americans playing for a trip to the 2008 Olympics. Injuries and off-the-court troubles have prevented the Los Angeles Lakers star from playing for previous national teams.

"I've been waiting for this for a while, just having the chance to represent our country," Bryant said after a workout at Valley High School. "It's a very special moment."

Bryant teamed with LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire during Wednesday's drills.

"We just clicked instantly, so it was very encouraging," Bryant said. "The timing is much better - the timing on cuts, the timing on passes."

Bryant is the most notable addition to a U.S. team that finished third in the world championships last year, missing out on an automatic berth in the Beijing Olympics.

Two of the 10 teams in the FIBA Americas tournament will earn Olympic bids, while the third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers will be slotted in another qualifying tournament next summer. The tournament runs through Sept. 2 at Thomas & Mack Center.

Bryant has never played for his country. He was chosen for the U.S. team that played in the 2003 Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico but withdrew with knee and shoulder surgeries. He remained on that team and was expected to join the Americans in the 2004 Olympics, but he was forced to drop out while expecting to face a sexual assault trial in Colorado.

Bryant got another shot last year, when USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo made him one of the first selections for the new national team program. But another knee surgery forced Bryant to withdraw before the start of training camp for the world championships.

Colangelo said Bryant was among the first players to show up for minicamp here last month and for this week's training camp.

"He's just focused, committed, excited," Colangelo said. "His presence makes a big difference, it really does. Put it this way: I think his intent is to make up for the times that he wasn't here."

Colangelo said he's looking forward to seeing Bryant perform in a style of basketball that features far more contact than in the NBA.

"The international game is so different," Colangelo said. "They allow so much physical play. It's not an NBA game, it's an international game. I think he fits perfect.

"He's physical," Colangelo said. "He's got an edge. He's a terrific competitor."

There have been questions about how Bryant, the Lakers' first scoring option, would mesh with a lineup of star players. Krzyzewski isn't concerned.

"Kobe's as good a player as there is on the planet, and he's a very team-oriented player," Krzyzewski said. "I think he's as good defensively as he is offensively, so that's a nice thing to have."

Bryant attracted a throng of reporters after practice. He was happy to talk about Team USA but sidestepped questions about his future with the Lakers, which has become a hot topic in Los Angeles.

In a May 30 interview with ESPN Radio, Bryant criticized the Lakers' front office for failing to build a championship contender and asked for a trade. In another interview later in the day, he seemed to soften his stance. Bryant hasn't addressed the issue much since, so it's unclear if the two-time league scoring champion still wants to leave the only NBA team he has played for.

"When the time is right to discuss it, we'll discuss it," Bryant said. "It's not the time right now."

Notes: Toronto forward Chris Bosh withdrew from training camp with a foot injury. Bosh, who has plantar fasciitis in his left foot, will not play in the FIBA Americas tournament. "It's disappointing because Chris did a hell of a job for us last year and he's only gotten better," Krzyzewski said. The 6-foot-10, 230-pound Bosh will remain on the team and under consideration a spot if the Americans for the 2008 Olympics. His withdrawal leaves Team USA with 14 players.

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