In the face of uncertainty, Kobe's comeback has begun
LOS ANGELES -- What started as a tent revival -- flashing cameras, standing ovations, extended chants and a few desperate souls who seemed to be speaking in tongues -- turned into a spectacle less spiritual, more human. Kobe Bryant, contrary to what his Facebook videos imply, does not possess divine powers that make him any more likely to overcome a torn Achilles tendon than the legion of other basketball stars who have succumbed to it. Watching him try, though, could eventually offer a more understated brand of inspiration.
Modern sports are filled with headliners so averse to scrutiny that they would temper expectations if coming off a stubbed toe. They'll need time, they caution, and more time to knock off the rust, and then even more time to acclimate with teammates. Bryant doesn't share such self-consciousness, such fear. The two-minute Facebook video, entitled "The Legend Continues," was overdone. The "Star Wars" soundtrack that accompanied his entrance Sunday night was melodramatic. But those exaggerated gestures were Bryant's way of reminding his public that one thing has not changed: he is still betting on himself, and betting big, no matter how diminished the odds and tendons may be.
Bryant was wearing the same uniform, on the same court, against the same team that he torched seven years ago for 81 points, but he was hardly the same player, even if he generated nearly as much fanfare. His first shot, after taking a slap on the backside from head trainer Gary Vitti, was a six-foot sky hook that didn't draw iron. He went scoreless for the first 17-and-a-half minutes. He made two shots in the game, missed seven, and finished with almost as many turnovers (eight) as points (nine). Perhaps he will again become the league's dominant one-on-one player, unleashing baskets in furious torrents, but right now he is a long way off. .
At the end of the first half, with the clock ticking down, Bryant cleared out and pounded the ball. It felt like 2006. He drove, he rose and ... he was blocked by Toronto's DeMar DeRozan. Bryant lay on the floor a couple seconds longer than Vitti would have liked. "You knew there'd be a little rust," DeRozan said. "He'll get it together. There's nothing to worry about." Consider the source, though. DeRozan grew up in Los Angeles, went to USC and idolizes Bryant the way Bryant idolized Michael Jordan. When DeRozan hugged him after the game, he held on for several seconds, as if he couldn't let a childhood hero slip away.
Bryant, as self-critical as he is self-promotional, rushed into the trainers' room and queued up the tape. He gave his performance an F. He called himself "horses---." He termed the night "A complete failure to me." He was actually encouraged by his movement, but he decided before leaving the trainers' room that the 225 pounds he is carrying are too many. He must shed. "Now I'll go home and watch the tape again," he said. "That's the exciting part. You have a challenge and improvements to make. I'll watch film all night."
Bryant's acolytes may have expected more Sunday, conditioned by his inhuman tolerance for pain and setback, but Bryant himself did not. He acknowledged that it might take all season for him to figure out how he will play in his new reality. It may take part of next season as well. Despite his social media tactics, Bryant doesn't believe he is bionic. He just believes he is creative enough to find a way, even if none appears immediately evident. Like anyone else, he will need the time, and more time to knock off the rust, and then more time to acclimate with a group that improbably went 10-9 in his absence. "He is human," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We have to understand. It's going to be a little painful at first."
Stepping on the Staples Center floor, eight months after he wondered whether he ever could again, was an accomplishment worth savoring for a second. Bryant sank his patented jab-step jumper. He hit a lefty bank shot he may have picked up in rehab. He tried to fit in, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out four assists. With 7:13 left, and the Lakers rustling up a comeback, D'Antoni left Bryant on the bench. "We want Ko-be!" the crowd sang. D'Antoni held his ground for 20 seconds. Then he relented. Bryant missed a short leaner he usually makes and threw another errant pass, which Kyle Lowry converted into a clinching layup. The Raptors, who had dropped five straight and traded small forward Rudy Gay earlier in the day, beat L.A. 106-94. No Lakers starter reached double figures.
The turnovers should not be a long-term concern. "My rhythm is completely out of sync," Bryant said, but he will regain that. The athleticism, and the explosiveness, will determine whether the Lakers are correct that he is still a $24 million-a-year player. "I was pleased I was able to move a little bit and turn the corner a little bit, get in the paint," Bryant said. "I feel like I could get to the spots that I wanted ... Running and cutting, being able to explode, feels weird. I'm still not sure exactly what I can do."
Most athletes, most people, would be petrified by such uncertainty. Bryant -- self-promotional, self-critical, but beyond all else self-assured -- laughed at the sound of it. The revival, or whatever this is, has begun.