CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This is not a farewell tour, people.
For all that Kobe Bryant no longer is, he proved on Saturday night that he can still play, that he can still close.
“Played big,” said Nick Young, Bryant’s new teammate.
“Made plays,” said Ben Gordon from the other side. “And he made the biggest play of the night at the end of the game.”
In a sense, it was vintage Kobe. Just another entry in his massive journal of clutch efforts put forth, many in victory. It’s a thick ledger full of excitement and suspense and daring.
Yet this was a new chapter, the first since the Achilles rupture and the doubts from the outside and even the admitted confusion in Bryant’s own head about what he can still do. It was not like this when he has played through sprained ankles or flu bugs. In those cases he still knows, unwaveringly, that it is there and just needs to be summoned.
This was his fourth game back from his most serious setback, and finally, here was his first game won. There were seven more turnovers, but also his first three-pointers of the season, and more of the old attack mentality on a foot that is remembering who it belongs to and what is demanded of it.
“My foot is feeling a lot stronger,” Bryant said. “My Achilles feels fine; it’s just the other muscles around there that are getting used to running and jumping.”
Why has Bryant hardly been shooting since he returned? His foot has been sore, and his base has been missing: “Haven’t been ready for it,” he said.
Even on this night, it wasn’t always pretty despite his season-high 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, seven rebounds and eight assists.
He set up Gordon, three inches shorter, far weaker and a notorious defensive liability, for a mid-post isolation at one point—and couldn’t rise up to shoot over him. Bryant resorted to a desperation pump fake, leaning in and getting the forced shot deflected.
Shortly thereafter, he drove baseline on Gordon but needed a little extra boost to get where he wanted to go. The whistle came for Bryant using his elbow to hook Gordon—offensive foul. When Bryant was lining up a key shot in the final minutes, he had the ball stripped away.
Bryant only had something to play for in crunch-time because the Lakers’ young second unit set a defensive tone the first half of the fourth quarter while he rested. Also key was Bryant’s pass for Young to nail a three-pointer and cut Charlotte’s lead to 85-82 before he used his savvy to read the defense and get the next points on a slicing layup.
The play of the game was the old pump fake, this time executed aggressively instead of desperately, to sucker Charlotte’s Gerald Henderson. Just like Lakers teammate Xavier Henry, over whom Bryant stuck his flashback jumper in that first team scrimmage nearly four weeks ago, Henderson had been a kid trying to learn from the master at that 2007 Nike Kobe Bryant Skills Academy.
Bryant played teacher yet again on Saturday, six years and one Achilles blowout later. He hit the free throws to go from down one to up one, and the lead held. Afterward, Bryant stood in sandals and still his game uniform, some splotches of blood dried to the gold on the left side of the shorts. He smiled.
“You always miss those moments, particularly on the road,” he said. “It’s always fun to close a team out down the stretch.”
After the final buzzer, Bryant had gone to find his new partner in mid-30’s excellence: boxer Floyd Mayweather, who had been watching from courtside. Another legend who knows the challenges of aging gracefully, Bobcats owner Michael Jordan had watched the first half from the floor but retreated, presumably to a luxury box, to watch the second half and accept the disappointment in private.
They had seen more of Bryant’s usual repertoire than the first three games combined—including a lot of verbal “encouragement” for struggling old friend Pau Gasol. (Bryant said he came into the locker room postgame and yelled at Gasol one last time—good-naturedly—about his turnovers and how he can’t throw him the ball if he "ain’t got no thumbs!")
But the quiet little breakthrough was Bryant’s pull-up jumper in the third quarter. Stopping suddenly and shooting smoothly has been one of his most elusive fundamentals to redevelop.
It was that moment, that rhythm jumper, which felt like Kobe. That was when all those wearing purple and gold in the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte were thinking "yes, I know that guy."
No, it’s not a farewell tour. Bryant is now signed for two seasons beyond this one and he does plan to continue add to his legacy. But on the flip side, surely some of those fans who showed up in Charlotte to see Bryant in person for the first time were bracing themselves for some half-speed, recovering Gray Mamba facsimile.
It brings to mind Joe DiMaggio’s awesome quote about why he worked so hard to be so consistently great: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”
If that kid was in the stands Saturday night, he got the Kobe experience.
Whatever was missing in dunks and defense, the will was there—and the game was won.