What Kobe Bryant's Return to Lakers Will Mean to the City of Los Angeles

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What Kobe Bryant's Return to Lakers Will Mean to the City of Los Angeles
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Kobe Bryant's comeback from a torn Achilles isn't likely to have the same impact on his Los Angeles Lakers as, say, that which #thereturn of Derrick Rose will have on the Chicago Bulls.

By the time he plays again, Bryant will likely have been sidelined seven or eight months, with only a few weeks missed of actual, meaningful games for the Los Angeles Lakers. Rose, on the other hand, will take to the court in a regular season game, during the Bulls' opener against the Miami Heat, for the first time in 18 months, with the entire 2012-13 NBA season wiped away.

But the differences between the two superstars extend far beyond their respective recovery timetables and into their disparate connections with the cities they represent. 

Rose is a product of Chicago's meanest streets. He's a humble kid from Englewood who was blessed with both talent and the intentionality with which to maximize it. He's a symbol of hope, one who demonstrates that good can come from the ravages of the Windy City, that the future can and will be better than the present. He's overcome adversity, physical and cultural alike, just as so many of the city's residents have and do every day.

Kobe's link to his current home doesn't run quite as deep, though it's no less a manifestation of Los Angeles than Rose's is of Chicago. If anything, Bryant's story is the perfect personification of the "LA Story."

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Bryant, like the "archetypal Angeleno," is a transplant in this town, first and foremost. Back in 1996, he was a gifted, ambitious and hardworking teenager who, along with his representatives, felt himself better suited to life as a Laker than one as a member of the then-New Jersey Nets. So Kobe came to LA, at which point he captured hearts and minds with his boyhood charm, his brash sense of self-confidence and, of course, his brilliant basketball ability.

The Black Mamba fit perfectly into the City of Angels, known to the outside world as a new-age "Garden of Eden" for the rich and famous. We loved the success he enjoyed with our Lakers—five championships, an MVP, two Finals MVPs and four All-Star Game MVPs, for good measure. We appreciated the way he dedicated himself to restoring the former sheen and shine of the Purple and Gold.

This being Hollywood, we even enjoyed the drama that followed Kobe at every turn. We watched his relationship with Shaquille O'Neal evolve from a "buddy cop" flick to a "rom-com" to a tragic tale of two seemingly inconsolable egos. We waited on pins and needles to see if Bryant's transgressions in Colorado would make him "O.J. Lite" or if his subsequent displeasure with the organization would portend his own exodus.

Now, we anticipate the triumph of the Philly-born, Italian-raised basketball savant over the most devastating injury of his 18-year career, like Rocky Balboa conquering the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Or, in LA terms, the infamous Santa Monica stairs.

In a city known for its celebrity inhabitants, Kobe has become a luminary all his own. In a sports town whose long and storied history has been marked by the iconic successes of fellow transplants John Wooden, John McKay, Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela and Vin Scully, Bryant stands as tall as anyone. In a building (Staples Center) whose plaza is peppered with statues of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya, Kobe is king.

In a galactic enclave crawling with stars, Kobe's burns the brightest of all, hoops hiatus or no.

Handout/Getty Images
From left to right: Magic Johnson, LL Cool J and Kobe Bryant at Dodger Stadium

But there's another, far more expansive side of LA with which Kobe connects on an entirely different level. Beyond the glitz and glamour of the city's "show biz" Babylon lies an expansive and vibrant underbelly of locals—honest-to-goodness native Angelenos who've spent their entire lives in southern California.

It's a population as diverse as the one that people see on TV shows and in the movies, if not more so. In fact, it's a swath comprised of the descendants of those who've trekked here from the four corners of the Earth over the years.

Kobe is similarly cosmopolitan. He's lived and traveled all over the world. He speaks multiple languages, chiefly Spanish and Italian, in addition to his native English tongue. His life and his tastes, like those of many Angelenos, have been infused and shaped by a global smorgasbord of experiences. 

He also understands full well the hard work and sacrifice required to get to this point—the same hard work and sacrifice that Angelenos pour into their lives every single day. You have to hustle to stay afloat, and hustle even harder to get to the top.

Such is the nature of surviving in a sprawling urban dreamscape. Folks all across town—from the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side, as Randy Newman once sang—identify with Kobe's dogged determination to be the best and the relentless, tireless work ethic that drives him to get better every step of the way.

That's why a healthy return to form from Kobe Bryant means so much. We here in LA aren't used to losing. Life is pretty darn good, typical hardships and all. The weather is beautiful for most of the year, there's always something fun and interesting to do somewhere, and there's great food wherever you go.

Traffic stinks, as does the smog that spills from the streams of cars that clog the area's byzantine network of freeways and thoroughfares. But those are small prices to pay for living in a modern metropolitan paradise.

A little gridlock isn't the end of the world, even if the screams and honks of those trapped in the rush-hour morass might suggest otherwise. Patience and persistence are the keys to not only getting by in LA, but thriving in it.

Kobe isn't from here, but he is of here. He's absorbed the flash and splash of Hollywood. He's soaked up the sun, the surf and the sand of Santa Monica. He's built the brand-new skyscrapers that tower over a glistening, gentrified Downtown. He's even strolled into gyms in South Central LA as both participant:

 

And spectator:

 

The city has become Kobe's, just as he's become ours. No winner in LA escapes without embrace, and Bryant is nothing if not a winner. The attitude, the intelligence, the talent, the drive, the charisma—it's all there.

Now, we wait anxiously for the Mamba to come to the Lakers' rescue. A team absent its two best defenders from last season, now reliant on a trio of banged-up 30-somethings and a supporting cast comprised of NBA D-listers, would seem to be one without much hope. It's incumbent upon Kobe, then, to keep the Purple and Gold from decaying into irrelevance, especially with the Los Angeles Clippers on the rise.

See, it's not that LA hates losing so much. It's just that, this city doesn't have the time or the attention span for it. There's so much here to soak up from the worlds of sports and entertainment, so much promise and opportunity around every corner, that dwelling on a depressingly bad team seems a waste.

Why wallow in manufactured sadness when you can frolic happily between movie premieres, TV tapings, massive malls, open-air markets, quirky beaches, unmistakable landmarks, first-rate restaurants, eye-opening art galleries and gorgeous hiking trails through the hills? Why chain yourself to a loser when there's a winner's bandwagon that's found a prime parking spot just down the street?

Sure, LA has its fair share of fair-weather fans, but what else would you expect in a city where the weather is, indeed, almost always so fair?

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Even Kobe, who seems one with LA now, has had his moments of doubt. In 2004, Bryant nearly ditched the Lakers to join the Clippers, their hallway rivals, before Shaq was shipped out. Several years (and several playoff disappointments) later, the Mamba was mouthing off, first demanding a move out of town if Jerry West didn't return to the team and then imploring the Lakers' brass (WARNING: the language in this video is definitely NSFW) to "ship [Andrew Bynum's] ass out."

Frustration, though, is far from foreign to Angelenos. If you had to brave the 405 in the early evening or take two hours of bus rides to get from Point A to Point B, you'd probably be pretty peeved, too, especially if you saw the city's "haves" fighting public transportation expansions that would better serve everyone, "have-nots" included.

But those inconveniences aren't so bad as to force anyone to flee. There's more than enough good to be had here so as to make the bad seem inconsequential by comparison. Kobe certainly discovered as much, once he stuck around to see Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family cobble together another mini-dynasty around him.

That experience is likely to keep Kobe a Laker for the rest of his playing days, even if he never gets another taste of that bygone glory that seems to be this city's birthright. So, too, would those who've discovered the spoils of this still-burgeoning Xanadu be loath to let go of what they've found and where they've found it.

And so, when Bryant steps back onto the floor at Staples Center, in whatever condition he may be, we'll marvel at his style and appreciate his substance all the same. Like family, we'll grumble over his stubborn insistence on taking bad shots from time to time and mistake his desire to win and incredible confidence for poorly timed selfishness. All the while, we'll bask in the genius of everything in between, on-court accomplishments and off-court quips included.

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Kobe the Person may not have been born and raised here, but Kobe the Superstar certainly was. We've seen him mature from a boy wonder into a man, and from a man into a champion. Now, we await the next chapter in what may wind up as the most epic sports biopic LA has ever produced.

Because, in a city sprinkled with equal parts stardust and salt of the Earth, Kobe Bryant encompasses everything that Los Angeles has been, is and hopes to be. His struggles are ours, and, soon enough, his triumphs will be, too.

 

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