LOS ANGELES — To a world watching Kobe Bryant make his return from a devastating injury, it was far from a storybook ending.
To Bryant, it was a beginning.
There is no storybook because this is his real world, the only world he has ever known. Even though his life has been packed with drama and hero shots along the way.
“The last time I had eight months off, I think I was still in the womb,” he said late Sunday night.
If you want to boil it down to a story, then there are two parts to his return from a torn Achilles tendon. There's one part you can read plainly in black and white in Bryant’s postgame comments:
- “Rhythm’s completely out of sync.”
- "A bunch of things I completely messed up on.”
- “I failed miserably at that.”
- “This is a complete failure to me.”
- “It’s an F. For me, it’s an F.”
Here’s Part II: Bryant said all of those things with a smile on his face.
He was, fundamentally, happy. He was just so happy to be back.
In his 18th NBA season with the same team—John Stockton’s 19 years with the Utah Jazz is the only longer such tenure—Bryant groaned like an elderly man and fluttered his lips in frustration as he sat down for his postgame press briefing. But he couldn’t hide the fact that he was damn happy to be there.
“I’ve really, really worked my butt off the entire summer to get to this place,” he said.
One story was that the Lakers were “disrupted”—Mike D’Antoni’s word, used repeatedly—by Bryant shooting 2-of-9 with eight turnovers. They never once led a Toronto team that had lost five consecutive games and then Rudy Gay to a pregame trade.
The other story was a reminder that Bryant has never, ever been about endings.
“It’s a start,” he said. “I guess a start is good.”
The guy who once called himself “the most optimistic person you’ve ever met” dwells on the past solely in order to make adjustments for the future. Even before addressing reporters postgame, Bryant had already watched game video—while doing his injury therapy—and said he would go home, stretch, take an ice bath and then “watch film pretty much all night.”
The smile started to come back again.
“That’s the exciting part,” he said. “The exciting part is you’ve got a challenge, and you’ve got some improvements to make.”
Bryant said he weighs 225 pounds with 8 percent body fat, but “now I feel like after playing the game, I need to drop some more (weight).” He did not say it with the kind of tone most of us use when we know we need to start a diet.
Last season, he had begun to question his own drive to keep up the dedication to this cause after all the years. Then the Achilles tore, presenting a simple challenge he said he would respond to “10 times out of 10.” Now that he’s back, he’s like the guy who mastered the video game and is all fired up about a new version coming out that he doesn’t know how to dominate.
“The shot feels weird,” he said. “Running and cutting and being able to explode feel weird.”
There is so, so much work still to be done, but Bryant prides himself on few things more than his work ethic. He takes solace in the most basic success that “my tendon feels completely fine,” and he draws confidence from it not tightening up on him during the game or preventing him from turning the corner when he did try to penetrate the Toronto defense.
But Bryant didn't take his shots or consistently probe that defense to the brink, as he did in practice scrimmages. He had five turnovers, four points and one assist in the second half, when the Lakers’ entire starting lineup amazingly failed to record a single field goal (Bryant shot 0-of-4).
The hype fueled by Bryant’s own Facebook video that this would be a triumphant return wound up with Bryant as a sacrificial failure. D’Antoni knew the Lakers had a better chance of rallying if he buried Bryant on the bench in the fourth quarter. When I asked him about considering that scenario, D’Antoni’s answer reflected the monstrous controversy that would’ve been created: “I wanted to live a little bit.”
“We’re going to get through this,” D’Antoni said. “So maybe you lose the skirmish, and then the battle is bigger. Obviously we’re going to ride Kobe, so we might as well get it over with. One game’s not going to kill us, but we have to get him back as soon as we can.”
Yes, it was a beginning, not an ending. Considering what fun it is to ride with Bryant on his unique journeys, that’s something for which to be thankful.
“I’m from L.A., a big Laker fan, a big Kobe fan, and I’m just happy he’s back and he’s healthy,” Toronto’s Amir Johnson said.
Bryant feels much the same.
“Right now my form is a horse-(expletive) form,” Bryant said.
And he laughed long, and he laughed hard.