LONDON – Kobe Bryant is fulfilling a lifelong sports dream in London, and it has nothing to do with basketball.
Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers will open their preseason against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the O2 Arena on Monday in the first game of the NBA's annual European tour. But it's the opportunity to watch some Premier League soccer that has the finals MVP feeling like a child again.
Bryant will attend the match between London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, one of the highlights of the English soccer calendar.
"When I was a kid growing up in Italy, my dream was — I used to go to Serie A (Italian league) games all the time, but I wanted to go watch a Premier game," Bryant said after the Lakers' finished practice Saturday. "And my mom would never let me go. I wanted to go watch Liverpool and stuff like that, and she was like 'No, you're not going.' So now to finally have an opportunity some 20 years later to go watch a Premier game is incredible."
Many European basketball fans feel the same way about the chance to watch Bryant and the Lakers — by far the most high-profile team to embark on the overseas tour. However, the performance may not be of the same caliber as watching the team that won its second straight NBA title in July.
Bryant is still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the offseason, center Andrew Bynum is injured and the rest of the team is shaking off the rust from the offseason.
"We're a little bit shy of our big guns, so to speak," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But we'll have plenty of players to showcase."
Center Pau Gasol cautioned that "it's the first game of the preseason, so it won't be the most attractive game." But, he added, since the Lakers are still the Lakers, "you always have to play like the champs."
Bryant's knee didn't show any adverse effects from the trans-Atlantic flight. He completed the full practice session at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in south London.
In only his second scrimmage since training camp began, he looked sharp at times. Bryant drained a 3-pointer and fade-away jumper on back-to back possessions during a fullcourt game.
"It felt more solid than it did the last time, so it's a good development for me," Bryant said. "No pain, just a little weak still, obviously, from the surgery."
Jackson plans to give Bryant limited minutes in the two European games — the Lakers play Barcelona in Spain on Thursday — but enough time to make sure the fans don't leave disappointed.
"You always want to play well, and give them something to remember," Bryant said. "So hopefully, I can perform."
Meanwhile, the status of the Timberwolves is unknown. The team won just 15 games last season, which led to a complete overhaul of the roster that returns only five players.
"We don't know what we're going to get out of these guys," Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said. "They're all so new and they're all trying to learn how to play with each other and figure each other out."
Being abroad together should help speed that process.
"Hopefully, this turns into a tremendous bonding experience," said Rambis, a former assistant to Jackson with the Lakers. "Obviously, the Lakers are the pinnacle of the basketball world, so our young guys get to compete against great athletes."
Both teams arrived in London on Friday and had a practice session. By Saturday, most of the players seemed to have adjusted to the time difference.
"This is something they should know how to do in their sleep," Jackson said.
Minnesota's Michael Beasley, the former Miami Heat forward who is one of the newcomers on the team, seemed a bit groggy.
"Oh man. I couldn't sleep last night," a tired-looking Beasley said ahead of practice. "The time difference took a toll on me. But I'm glad it got me early. I'm going to sleep right after practice."
Beasley promised to be more alert on Monday night.
"I want to play this game like it's the last game of the season," Beasley said. "I don't want to come here and just play and lose just because we're supposed to lose because they're the Lakers.
"I want to give them a fight, I want to challenge them. I want to send a message to the league that the Timberwolves are here."