LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant pulled at the black sleeve that had been on his left calf, contorting his body and twisting his face.
He looked a little like a kid hoping no one was watching, determined to play freely and intent on quickly peeling off the coat he'd been told to wear because it was cold outside.
He looked a lot like Bryant himself, treating that unwanted calf sleeve as if it were an arm sling for his rotator cuff tear...or a crutch for his tibial plateau fracture...or a boot for his Achilles tendon rupture.
Bryant sat back on the bench Wednesday night as the Lakers opened the season against Minnesota and tugged harder a few more times.
He got that sleeve down over his foot and wore a look of satisfaction even before he went back in and lit up the second quarter of his first NBA game in more than nine months.
How much of Bryant's life has been spent trying to get his body right the past three years? Enough hours—including the past two weeks of impatiently waiting for the pain to check out of that bruised calf—so that his body was actually feeling good, feeling strong.
Wear the sleeve just to be safe? Increase a little circulation? Deter muscle fatigue? Please.
Let me go.
Enough with the protection. Step aside, all you well-intending folks from the Society for the Preservation of Kobe Bryant.
And for one quarter, the 37-year-old man frolicked and rollicked on the court like that carefree boy at recess. He made four of six shots, two coming from three-point range. His team was winning, and this was the pot-of-gold reminder of why the tedious training and rehab can be worth all the work.
Except the moment passed. The bright sun over the playground got smothered by cloud cover that would not break.
Bryant being Bryant, he persisted with the let-me-go mindset even after his hand went cold. He had looked a little off—his shooting base unsteady—in his brief halftime warm-ups, abbreviated further because Doug Collins jumped into his path to give him a hug and Jalen Rose had to ask how he felt.
Maybe the calf did fatigue after he asked it to produce jumpers from 19 and 25 feet to open the third quarter. Maybe it was being out of game rhythm, with Bryant saying, "That timing will come back. I haven't played in a minute."
Bryant missed his final eight shots, many hard-to-watch deep forces produced from stagnant Byron Scott isolation alignments. On several, Bryant wasn't even able to establish post position against skinny Andrew Wiggins without being pushed out to the three-point line to receive the ball. By game's end, Bryant had scored 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting, launching 13 three-pointers and making three.
The feel-good story shifted from Bryant's return to the plucky Minnesota Timberwolves rallying to win their opener just four days after coach and team president Flip Saunders died of Hodgkin lymphoma. Scott said he had no uncertainty about calling the final play for Lou Williams instead of Bryant with the Lakers down one and having the ball; Williams' floater over Kevin Garnett's help defense just missed.
One game never makes a season, and Bryant will have other opportunities to show he can sustain his standard level of play in the 30 minutes per game Scott is capping him.
But Bryant was so intent on scoring or arguing non-calls that he needed occasional reminders about his defensive responsibilities from Roy Hibbert. Bryant also had no assists until chalking one up with 31.6 seconds left in the game, as he adhered to his usual protocol of not looking to pass unless double-teamed. (To be fair, he also didn't turn the ball over once.) To Bryant's way of thinking, he has to prove he can get to the basket and merits that extra defender to create for others.
One quarter never makes a game. But in the same way 20 minutes of recess fun can sustain a kid through hours of sitting at his desk, Bryant can cling to the unobstructed feeling of second-quarter freedom after discarding that calf sleeve.
Even he needs the reminder of how exciting it is to play and play well with the fans roaring and the lights on.
Even before all the rehab and recovery of the recent years, Bryant began to view all his behind-the-scenes warm-up and study more like employment than his usual passion.
His update late Wednesday night, though, was that the passion remains.
"I just love playing. I love the preparation of it," he said. "Just want to do it as much as I can. Even now, it's a matter of not doing it too much, because I don't look at it as training; I just look at it as enjoying what I'm doing."
He has joined Garnett, Robert Parish, Kevin Willis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to crack the 20-year mark. They, however, are all big men whose bodies haven't been subjected to the same kind of movement and torque—or, beyond that, insistence on playing through pain.
Scott's final year as a player was Bryant's rookie year, and Scott's first impression of Bryant from 1996 was finding him shooting alone in the Great Western Forum even though the lights weren't on.
All these years later—"I've been wearing this jersey for more than half my life; it's crazy," Bryant said—the job remains the same.
Prepare well and perform better.
Bottom line, opening night wasn't good enough.
It was only fun while it lasted.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.