It’s only fitting that Kobe Bryant and Abby Wambach, two of the biggest sports stars of the past few decades, are still making headlines as we start to look towards the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Bryant, 36, wants to go for one more gold medal, but only if he earns his spot, according to USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo.
“(Kobe) also mentioned to me in a private conversation that if he had his druthers, he would love to ride off into the sunset playing one more time and winning the gold medal,” Colangelo told reporters at the conclusion of Team USA’s minicamp on Thursday. “But he was very quick to say, ‘But, I don’t want a spot. I need to earn the spot. I need to be capable of playing at that level to be considered.”
Wambach, 35, has not made a decision on retirement yet, but told Yahoo! Sports that a spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team roster would be hard to turn down.
“I’m getting older, definitely not getting younger, but the reality is, if I’m asked to play for my country it might be difficult to say no,” Wambach said. “But I haven’t made any definitive decisions yet.”
Kobe clearly has the taller task here. The 12-man roster will be made up of four guards, and barring injury, the American group will be made up of Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. The four wings will probably be LeBron James (if he decides to play), Kevin Durant (if he stays healthy), Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard.
Bryant is not currently better than any of those eight players. There is no chance he makes it on skill level alone, which seems to be his caveat to playing on this team. Even if LeBron chooses not to play and KD gets injured, opening up the possibility for the Black Mamba to make the team as a small forward, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green would be more appealing options for coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Colangelo also knows that people are going to watch this team dominate the Angolans and Tunisians of the world with or without Kobe on the squad, so TV ratings are a non-factor in his decision (not sure they would have been a factor anyways).
All of the saving graces Bryant could have had in the past (TV ratings, merchandise sales, sponsorship deals) are going to be irrelevant in Rio, giving him one chance to make Team USA, one he doesn’t even want: a lifetime achievement award. The only way Kobe makes this team is a gift from buddies Colangelo and Krzyzewski, and he’s not going to go that route. Things could get awkward and disappointing for one of the game’s greats and the legions of Lakers fans who admire his every move.
On the surface, Wambach has much more leverage than Bryant. For one, Olympic soccer rosters are made up of 18 players. It’s a cutdown from the 23-player World Cup maximum, but coach Jill Ellis isn’t being handcuffed as much as basketball counterpart Krzyzewski.
With Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny already announcing their retirements, there are 20 women from the World Cup team still in play for the 18 spots.
But the potential for awkwardness mentioned in Bryant’s case is there for women’s soccer as well. 40-year-old captain Christie Rampone, the only member of the 1999 and 2015 championship teams, seemed certain to retire after the World Cup but hasn’t ruled out an attempt to become the oldest Olympic player ever. “If my body holds up, I’ll be there,” she told The Equalizer.
If Wambach and Rampone both attempt to make the team and play in Rio, Ellis may be forced to unceremoniously cut two of the five most capped (most appearances) players in the country’s history. Rampone and Wambach have put on the senior national team jersey a combined 559 times; Kristine Lilly is the only player with more caps than Rampone.
Despite all they have done for the national team, Rampone and Wambach have undeniably lost a step. Neither player was ever the fastest to begin with, but as their bodies slow down, the chance they will earn a spot on the Olympic team begins to get smaller. It’s hard to justify putting Wambach on the squad over a player like Crystal Dunn, whose speed and goal-scoring ability make her a trendy pick to be among the 18. It’s also tough to justify putting Rampone on the team over a college upstart like Cari Roccaro of Notre Dame, who may be the best defender in college soccer.
Could Ellis really pull a Jurgen Klinsmann and cut one or two of her most beloved players ever? You really can’t put it past her. After all, simply benching Wambach would have been an unthinkable move four years ago, yet that’s exactly what happened for the majority of the World Cup. Ellis, like Klinsmann, hasn’t shown a big sentimental side in her tenure as U.S. boss, and she understands that the fact that she’ll need to play her whole team in Brazil will force her to make a couple calculated moves in the next 11 months.
Kobe fans should soak up every moment this upcoming NBA season- his Olympic chances are bleak, so he may only be lacing up the sneaks 82 more times (that’s an extremely optimistic figure considering his injury history the past few seasons). Abby Wambach fans should enjoy the USA Victory Tour- she might not make another national team appearance after the celebration is over.
The old adage is ringing true once again: Father Time is undefeated, even against his fiercest competitors.