It is still the first week of the Los Angeles Lakers' regular season, and Kobe Bryant is coming off serious injuries in back-to-back campaigns. How will we know when he has really returned to the game—not just in body, but in all the telltale ways we've come to know and expect over the years?
Do we require the high-flying windmill slams of his youth? Do we need buzzer-beating three-pointers? How about another 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors?
Or has this simply become a shallow construct of how we judge an aging athlete when those around him have fallen away and a team that was once built to win no longer exists?
The Lakers' season opener against the Houston Rockets Tuesday night was a dark and dismal affair—a lopsided loss capped off by 19-year-old rookie Julius Randle going down with a season-ending broken leg.
Yet in the midst of a lousy night, there was Bryant at age 36 as the team's leading scorer—getting tangled up with Dwight Howard and serving notice that he never backs down. There was No. 24, pointing his finger and taunting the much larger, elbow-waving Houston center.
The onetime Laker who fled to the Rockets during free agency in 2013 couldn't handle the Mamba's anger and demanding ways as a teammate, and he probably wouldn't jump into that fight without referees or teammates getting in the middle.
After the game, Bryant laughed off the mini-skirmish, labeling his former teammate "a teddy bear."
And then came Wednesday night—a back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns and another losing effort from an undermanned team. Yet Bryant poured in 31 points in 28 minutes, got his second technical in as many nights, played smashmouth basketball and at times appeared to be the one guy in purple and gold who really cared.
What does "officially back" mean? Should it come accompanied by a winning record? Does it mean when lesser talents play as well as he does? Is it about incendiary nights when an aging star does the impossible and turns back the hands of time with spectacular feats of old?
The longtime franchise cornerstone has been defined by journeys to the top of the mountain time and again. Like Sisyphus, who strains mightily to push a boulder uphill, the five-time NBA champion assigns impossible goals for himself and for those around him.
In 2006, Bryant wrote about exactly this in a cover story of Dime Magazine (h/t Reddit), expressing in part:
That mountain, the one that I climbed once and now face again, is huge. I'm looking up at it again. And because I know how hard it was to climb, I sometimes feel drained because I know how difficult it will be to conquer. It's much harder to go from top to bottom to the top again than it is to simply go from the bottom to the top. But desire is the ultimate fuel.
That was during the Smush Parker and Kwame Brown era. Eight years later, Bryant is again struggling up the hill without much firepower around him and with a lot less tread on the tires.
His attitude has been polarizing, to say the least. Yet even as he seems to have mellowed to some slight degree, as he smiles more easily and mentors young players, he is still examined, compared and blamed.
During the lead-up to a season in which Bryant would try to pass Michael Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list, ESPN deemed him the 40th-best player in the league.
The 16-time All-Star responded by calling the media "idiots," and within days, a long-form article appeared in ESPN The Magazine in which Henry Abbott wrote," For years the Lakers lived by the Mamba. This is the story of how they're dying by him."
It might well have been a gift to a player who uses scorn and doubt as just one more motivational arrow in a quiver that is not yet close to being empty.
Bryant led all scorers for the Lakers throughout exhibition play and through the first two games of the regular season. Even with nearly two decades of NBA punishment under his belt, he's the best player on the team, as well as its undisputed leader.
And despite his reputation as an unyielding taskmaster, he's still trying to find some silver linings, saying after Wednesday's loss, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN, "We're not as bad as these first two games. We're not."
Does coming back happen in stages or sections? Is there a litmus test Bryant has to pass along the way—something apart from all the accomplishments and in addition to how he actually performs while leading a team of lesser lights?
Or do we know simply because we see an athlete who is recognizably the same person, who still competes at a high level, still possesses his signature jab step, pump-fakery, fall-away jumper and the competitive spirit to come out firing even when a game seems irrevocably lost?
Much has been made of the fact that Bryant is moving into a two-year contract extension that will pay him $48.5 million.
It is a convenient way to point fingers and accuse an athlete for being the reason for an organization's overall failure. Yet Bryant is only flesh and blood on a hardwood court, one of 10 players at any given time.
Should we use a financial slide rule to determine that his points should count disproportionately at the final buzzer because others may have earned less?
It would be a mistake to wait for some further proof that a fiercely willful basketball player has returned. A moment can turn on a dime, and heading into his 19th NBA season, a lion in winter's time is both finite and fleeting.
It could have been over when Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in April 2013. And it could have been over again last December when he fractured his knee.
Yet improbably, he is back now—in both real and elusive ways. Not all nights will be great. Some will be dreadful, and others will pale with the reality of a basketball legend playing out his last days with a subpar team.
But love him or hate him, one of the giants of sports has returned during an era in which there seem to be increasingly fewer of them.
How will we know when Kobe Bryant is back? When we turn on the TV or walk into a bar or a sports arena and watch once again as an uncompromising warrior glowers, loads up and lets it fly.
That time is now.