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Kobe Bryant's Return Will Make Every NBA Fan Appreciate His Greatness

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2013

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers, wearing an NBA Green Week T-shirt, listens to the National Anthem before playing against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

In one swift return, Kobe Bryant will reinvent the heart and elevate the spirit of the entire Los Angeles Lakers franchise.

It's been more than seven months since NBA fans last saw Kobe play. When we last saw him on the court, dressed to the nines in purple and gold, he was grimacing in pain. In a picture-perfect Kobe moment, he was also found leading the Lakers to a much-needed victory, outlasting a ruptured Achilles long enough to sink two pivotal free throws.

Seven months. And counting. That's a long time. Too long. In 17 years, he had never missed more than 17 regular-season games, and though he hasn't duplicated or surpassed that mark yet, his absence dates back to last April and has felt like forever.

Mercifully, it seems the wait is almost over. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding brings word that Kobe has been fully cleared for all basketball-related activities:

It’s up to Kobe Bryant now.

Bryant has full medical clearance, I was told Sunday by someone in a position to have such knowledge—meaning he can do anything and everything without restriction as the recovery from his ruptured left Achilles tendon nears its conclusion.

His long-awaited return finally in sight, that naked feeling Kobe's inaction left us with can begin to dissolve until it dissipates into nothing.

"He looked real good," Jordan Hill said of seeing Kobe practice, via Lakers.com. "He was going real hard."

Black Mamba reloaded. Vino reborn. Kobe renewed. We're almost there, standing on the verge of seeing the same old Kobe incite new levels of appreciation in all of us.

  

Instant Identity

Jan. 30, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash (10) and forward Pau Gasol against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There's an emptiness in the Lakers rotation only Kobe can fill.

It goes beyond box scores and raw statistics, and trowels into Los Angeles' core. There, at the center of the team, is nothing. No one. No leader for the Lakers to turn to; no chief amongst a tribe of lackeys.

Pau Gasol, 33 and mustering a double-double, hasn't been a suitable replacement. Roughly half of his career has been spent playing second, and at times third, fiddle on Kobe's Lakers. Coming off the worst season of his career, it was always unrealistic to expect him to fill the void Kobe left.

Steve Nash, the only potential stand-in of the bunch, is battling nerve damage to his back that has left him physically restricted and, per Peter Vecsey, possibly contemplating retirement. 

Dwight Howard now with the Houston Rockets, there is no one other than Kobe capable of defining this current Lakers team. Of giving it the identity it has yet to find.

Not a single player on the roster is averaging even 15 points per game. Last season, the only team without a player to hit 15 points a night was the Phoenix Suns, and they won just 25 games all season. Is that the Lakers? A 25-win team? Without Kobe, maybe.

Early results suggest the Lakers have more than 25 wins in them. That they may even toy with staying at or around .500. What they don't have is a go-to scorer. A superstar. Someone to feed the ball late in games and have faith they can get the job done.

Kobe changes things for the Lakers.
Kobe changes things for the Lakers.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What they haven't had is Kobe.

"There’s no way that (Kobe) comes back with everything, but at the same time, his 10 percent is better than most people," coach Mike D'Antoni said, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.

On the wrong side of 35 and still working his way back from a career-threatening injury, Kobe's production isn't a sure thing. His health isn't a sure thing.

But his will, longstanding legacy and ability to shed light on an increasingly opaque team is.

Newfound Optimism

Contain your excitement if you can. But you can't or rather, you won't. Not when Kobe comes back.

Clad with a much-needed identity, the Lakers become more relevant. Because of Kobe. 

Banner No. 17 won't hang from rafters come June, but Los Angeles' playoff chances skyrocket if Kobe can make a successful return. The Lakers have done their part without him thus far, keeping .500 within reach. Upon return, if Kobe can be a silhouette of the scorer, of the performer he's always been, Los Angeles' postseason ticket could be punched.

In a broader perspective, Kobe's return also sets the wheels of his team's future in motion. Finally back on the floor, the outcome of his impending free agency, and how much it will cost the Lakers, is free to take shape.

"I want to put an end to any speculation that we would allow Kobe to become a free agent," Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations, Jim Buss, told ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "That's not going to happen. Kobe is a top priority for us."

Once he's settled, negotiations should pick up steam. They might not go swimmingly, nor will a contract necessarily be signed before July, but the Lakers should at least have an idea of how much money Kobe will command.

Armed with that knowledge, general manager Mitch Kupchak can craft a plan for the franchise's future. Knowing how much Kobe will cost ultimately means the Lakers will know how much they have to burn on potential free agents like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. 

The future in LA begins once Kobe returns.
The future in LA begins once Kobe returns.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding the extent of their immediate spending power will go a long way in preserving what's left of Kobe's career while ensuring they have a purpose after he's gone.  

For Kobe's part, he gives the Lakers another selling point. An incumbent superstar to flaunt in front of prospective targets. And they'll be expected to look not at his age, but at what he's done. The five championships. The 15 All-Star selections (14 appearances). The 31,000-plus points scored. All of his past accolades can be used to sell other stars on a sustainable winning culture in Los Angeles.

"He's a Laker legend and always will be," Buss said, via Shelburne. "I don't think we're done winning championships with him yet."

Sporting purple and gold once more, Kobe will remind everyone of the grand plans, for both today and tomorrow, the Lakers have laid out in front of them.

Forever Kobe

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

This is the beginning of goodbye.

Kobe won't be around forever; his latest brush with mortality was a demoralizing reminder that not even the Mamba is invincible. Put simply, it was a reality check. A valuable one.

Life without Kobe hasn't only planted a heightened sense of urgency within the Lakers to win now while preparing for the future. It's also rejuvenated our interest in Kobe, our respect for Kobe. Our appreciation of Kobe.

Talents like himself aren't common. Few players have the privilege of being compared to Michael Jordan or other all-time greats. Even fewer have held our attention for this long. But he's been great for so long, it's almost criminal how automatic we expected him to be.

Kobe became only the 11th player in league history, aged 34 or older, to log more than 38 minutes for an entire season in 2012-13. And he remains the oldest player in Association history to average at least 27 points, six assists and five rebounds per game in the same year.

Aging players don't do that; normal players don't do that. They don't break minutes barriers and push the boundaries of conventional production. They don't stay at the top of their game for as long as Kobe did. For as long as Kobe has. Typically, they regress to the mean; play down to their age. Kobe wouldn't; he hasn't.

Ardent fans will always remember what he's done, especially now. More so, they'll remember life without Kobe, how unsettling it was and how fortunate they are to watch him pillow his legacy one last time.

"Once I’m ready to go, it’s gonna be on," Kobe previously said in a radio interview, per Ding.

Whatever version of him returns, be it a bedraggled rendition of the player he once was or veracious portrayal of the one who went down, that will be enough. It will be enough to cherish all he's done and all he's meant to this game.

Enough to properly treasure whatever time he has left, and whatever gifts he has left to give.

*All stats front his article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Nov. 19, 2013 unless otherwise noted.