What was this, a new video game? A premiere of a bad action movie? Did Kobe Bryant really have to be introduced with Darth Vader theme music, which followed a painfully overwrought, two-minute trailer announcing his return to the Lakers on Facebook? I mean, the man is 35 years old and universally entrenched among the greatest basketball players of all time. From Staples Center to the Great Wall of China, he doesn’t need a last name.
He’s Kobe. Like Jordan was Michael.
So why turn him into a cartoon character? Why make a video in which his No. 24 jersey shreds in two during a wicked storm in a tortured attempt at symbolism — a reference to his torn Achilles’ tendon, I suppose — before the rains turn to sunshine with his jersey repaired and good as new? Why did Nike have to flash a scoreboard message that shrieked, “Kobe Bryant doesn’t have anything left to prove, but he will anyway,” and why did the in-house production crew deliver an over-the-top salute — “Beware the smoke, beware the flame, beware the inferno, beware the Mamba” — that seemed unbecoming for a renowned, 16-banner franchise that shouldn’t try so hard?
The kitschy Hollywood treatment seemed particularly awkward when Bryant, in what shouldn’t have been a surprise, struggled in his first NBA game in almost eight months. What, you thought he’d go out and throw another 81 on the Raptors? His comeback will require time and patience and no overreactions to single-game failures, the only way to describe his eight turnovers and 2-of-9 shooting in a 106-94 loss to a Toronto team that didn’t have its best-known player, Rudy Gay, and two others because they were being traded to Sacramento in a seven-player deal.
“This was a complete failure to me,” said Bryant, who graded himself with an “F” as his harshest critic. “I don’t feel normal at all. But that’s the exciting part. You have improvements to make.”
Harsh? “I’m just insanely critical,” he said. “There was a bunch of things that I completely messed up … Right now, my form is a horse(bleep) form.
“My rhythm is completely out of sync in terms of being able to read passing lanes and judge timing of players in between those lanes and so forth. But I guess it’s a start. I guess a start is good.”
At one point, he fell to the floor after his shot was blocked by Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and got up with a limp. “I was scared myself,” he said. But he said his Achilles’ tendon was not sore, which means I have buried the lead. “My tendon feels completely fine. Now it’s just managing the body and making sure you have proper nutrition and hydration and stretching and ice baths and all that fun stuff and doing what you have to do to make sure you’re ready day in and day out,” said Bryant, who said he feels “like 60” and needs to adjust his diet and lose weight.
Polarizing as he is, Bryant now will hear the haters declaring that he’s old and finished. Please, be smarter than that. At the moment, the most important thing is that he’s healthy and able to romp and spring through the air and explode to the basket like the Black Mamba of old. He has been doing that in practice, which explains why the Lakers showered him with a controversial $48 million extension through the 2015-16 season, and the goal is to see him in Kobe form so they can vie for a playoff berth in a deep, difficult Western Conference. Most importantly, Bryant’s challenge is to peak for the start of next season, when the Lakers hope to have LeBron James or another big-ticket free agent to pair with Bryant for two seasons and then become a long-term cornerstone for a franchise that always features a superstar or two.
This night, in the biggest picture, was just a beginning. Pre-judge him at your own risk.
He played shooting guard and point guard, part of coach Mike D’Antoni’s plan to coax him into game shape. “It’s going to take a while,” D’Antoni said. “I know everybody thought he could, but there’s no way you can come out and be in midseason form. It’s just going to be a little while to get his legs and timing back.”
Which will take some adjustments for those watching. “He’s not going to be above the rim for a while, which is fine,” D’Antoni said. “There’s some great players who played below the rim, and he’ll have to do that for a little bit. He’ll control the game, and his presence will be significant.”
As a performer, he remains the most magical name in Los Angeles sports, by far. It’s still not even close, in fact, with worshippers arriving from show business and all walks of life to welcome him home. Listening to the ovation, Bryant was moved and came close to tears. Yes, Kobe has tear ducts. “You try to control it as much as you can, but you can’t help thinking about the hard work,” Bryant said. “You try to put it to the side as much as possible and do your work. It makes you appreciate the game, this franchise and this city, and all we’ve been through. It certainly brings a mortality to everything.”
The next two weeks will be trying times. Check back on Christmas Day. The man has a taste for the dramatic, and this time, it won’t be manufactured.