Kobe Bryant could be returning to action soon for the Los Angeles Lakers. The story’s getting some coverage but not at the epic level that accompanied the superstar’s journey back from a torn Achilles tendon earlier this season. It’s not a bad thing for the team or for Bryant.
On January 10, Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times relayed a sign of hope:
Coach Mike D’Antoni said Friday that he hopes that Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant can play January 28 against Indiana, right after the Lakers’ seven-game road trip, their longest of the season. Speaking to reporters at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo, D'Antoni said the two stars would return "about the same time. Hopefully both of them are ready."
A week later, Bresnahan was writing a less definitive headline, for the Times, that “Bryant says he plans to play again this season.” No specific timetable was attached this time.
In the same article, Bryant himself seemed subdued and reflexive when discussing the difficulty of watching the Lakers losing season:
I try to detach from it as much as possible. I feel like [I'm] taking… Bruce Banner, and putting him in the middle of a bar fight and hope he doesn't become the Hulk. That's what I feel like watching these games. I mentally take myself someplace else. I think about sitting on the beach. Try to think about something else.
Bruce Banner—the Incredible Hulk’s doppelganger. Recent photos of Bryant show a nearly expressionless man, watching from the bench. You wonder what’s lurking inside—this is one of the most intensely driven athletes in modern sports. He has to be doing a slow boil.
Over the past week, there hasn’t been as much breaking news about a possible return.
If you read a recent report from Mike Trudell for Lakers.com, however, there seems to be at least some progress:
Bryant is expected to be evaluated when the team returns to Los Angeles on either Monday, January 27, or Tuesday the 28th. Bryant said that he expected to get an MRI in “February,” but that could apparently come a few days prior to the change of month.
In a word, the predictions are cautious—so different from the breathless updates that seemed to accompany each and every move after Bryant’s torn Achilles, from the night he crumpled to the ground on April 12 of last year to his eventual return on December 8 against the Toronto Raptors.
Without linking and reliving each moment all over again, suffice to say to there was surgery and recovery, walking on an anti-gravity treadmill and jumping off a diving board. There were special shoes and an eventual return to practice and a parking lot full of vans with satellite dishes at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.
The whole thing was capped off with Bryant’s two-year contract extension and then the actual return to on-court action itself, which lasted all of six games before a fractured left lateral tibial plateau sent the legend back to the bench, once again.
For those not up to speed on medical terminology, that’s the big bump that you can feel, right where the lower part of your knee meets your shinbone.
So here we are—the season currently stands at 16-26 and the bulk of Lakers press items seem dedicated to just how much worse things can get or the unlikely emergence of a point guard hero from the D-League in Kendall Marshall, or possibilities for the 2014 NBA draft.
Why is there not a greater anticipation for the second coming of Bryant, this season? Is it a kindness from those who don’t want to assign unfair expectations to someone who has been through so much over the past nine months?
Or has an overly saturated narrative simply become the equivalent of a post-turkey tryptophan-induced nap on Thanksgiving Day?
Perhaps it’s simply the calm before the storm. Perhaps the gathering hoards are waiting to feast in a blitzkrieg of type-pads, tweets and camera lights.
The Lakers themselves are probably grateful for some small respite. Feel-good stories about unlikely heroes eking out small victories on the road are a welcome change from the incessant questions—whether one oft-injured megastar can return to lead a team from the bottom regions of the Western Conference to the playoffs and beyond.
At some point, however, the questions will have to be answered. Bryant is as willful a competitor as has ever played the game. He doesn’t care so much about the expectations of others as he does about the demands he places on himself.
The expression on Bryant’s face lately says that he’s not a happy camper. And when Kobe’s not happy and he’s allowed onto the basketball court, interesting games can happen.
For now, Bryant and the Lakers are benefiting from less attention. That won’t last much longer—the storm is about to begin.