Kobe Bryant's Effort to Rediscover Game Is Moving Forward but Far from Complete

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 30, 2014

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kobe Bryant has always chosen his own context.   

Accordingly, the perspective has mostly tilted in his favor, toward his grandeur, serving in construction of his legend.   

It has not been ineffective marketing.

Bryant came to the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility a week ago and told new coach and longtime friend Byron Scott how much rust felt coated on his bones despite how healed everything was and how much more focus he had been placing on his craft all summer.

Bryant did not want the team's website or TV network in the gym, as was allowed for other informal scrimmages for Lakers players. He had worked out with teammates such as Jeremy Lin for a week early in the offseason, but this was different.

This would be real five-on-five, a meaningful test.

Did Bryant pass? Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak termed the results "comforting" and was moved a few days later to remind: "He gives you a chance, no matter the circumstances, to be really good."

Scott saw enough to suggest Monday at Lakers media day that Bryant would average 24 points and play all 82 games. Scott's doubt about how well Bryant could raise up to get his jumper off was eased to the point that Scott described Kobe's outlook as "very exciting."

Bryant executed his footwork in the mid-post. He had the lift also to reach high for much-needed rebounds.

He played three games.

He hit two game-winning shots.

Asked on the eve of training camp about his dramatic scrimmage success, Bryant said, "I hadn't played, so I spent the whole summer just kind of preparing and training. It was important for me to get a five-on-five game in, so I could see what I can and can't do.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"And I felt like me."

Bryant didn't say it with any bravado, however. He also wasn't cavalier about it and didn't make it seem like a no-brainer. He didn't even mention those oh-so-Kobe winning shots that the public was unaware he had hit.

He was pleased, but he was not emboldened.

He chose that context, and he chose not to feed the hype—or even believe it himself.

All he wanted to say about it was that it was a small, personal, positive steppingstone.

And I felt like me.

That's not to be taken lightly as Bryant, 36, tries to inspire his public all over again with a comeback from the fractured right knee on top of the torn left Achilles that saw him play just six games last season.

"It's just trying to see if I can prove to myself," he said, "that I can be myself."

Bryant added that the "words of doubt" from the outside—haters, critics or realists, whatever they might be—fan his flame, but only secondarily.

"I've always been that way, though," he said. "I feel that [makes for] a much healthier journey. It's much more enjoyable to look to the side every now and then and look at who you're proving wrong in the process. That's never been the main driver for me."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Listening to Bryant speak Monday, it was clear that he is confident in his health. What he is uncertain of is the high hurdle of this recovery, which requires him to re-establish his game in the face of the unyielding aging process.

To that end, Bryant placed more focus on the craft, the details, the crux of his game, than anything over the summer. He dropped about 10 pounds but did so without using the track, his usual haven for early morning conditioning, and holed himself up in the gym. He feels potent on offense, as usual, but he wonders whether his lower body can slide defensively the way he knows it must if the Lakers defense is to meet Scott's expectations.

The fundamentals have to be Bryant's foundation more than ever. His outsized self-confidence was always rooted in faith that his work ethic would result in his game being there when he needed it.

So the only issue now that he is healthy is whether he will meet his own challenge.

Long before anyone else can judge how much this old snake looks like the Black Mamba, either he will feel comfortable in his skin or he won't.

Bryant admitted he was "anxiously awaiting" the Lakers' first practice. The first exhibition game is a week after that.

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers grabs a rebound against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 17, 2013 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The regular-season opener sits a month away.

A year ago, Bryant was in a similar position, returning to the court from a prolonged absence while facing an uphill struggle against his Achilles.

"Now there are questions, but they don't center around health," Bryant said of the difference this year.

As much as the suggestions so far sound good, Bryant's inflection won't change back to certainty until he has a different answer, an answer that isn't: "I felt like me."

It has to be: "It's me."

Anything less, and it's going to be a long, unsatisfying march into retirement.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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