Kobe Bryant is back, returning to the Lakers' lineup Sunday. But how will he affect a team that has stayed afloat at .500 without him? Time will tell what genre of movie finish this gets.
SACRAMENTO — OK, so the video was a little dramatic.
Kobe Bryant's plan to return from his left Achilles tendon tear in a home game against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday was announced in true Hollywood fashion, his Los Angeles Lakers jersey flapping amid a backdrop of wind, rain, sun, sleet and snow and enduring all the changing seasons that, one can assume, were supposed to symbolize all the time that has passed in his remarkable run. There was even a tear in the jersey at one point that — making more creative assumptions here — represented the tendon that he shredded back in April and which is finally ready to support his stardom again.
If only they'd been able to convince super fan Jack Nicholson to cap the two-minute short film by popping out from behind a cloud at the end and shouting in true Shining style, "Heeeeere's Kobe!"
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But jokes aside — and there were no shortage of them on Twitter when the video was released — this truly is a monumental moment for one of the game's greats. Faced with a devastating decision about whether he would be forced into retirement by injury or face the challenge of coming all the way back that would have been daunting even if it were still the late 1990s, Bryant — whose two-year, $48.5 million extension signed recently put a timetable on his twilight — has honored his own legacy even before stepping out on the floor again. Now we see if a horror flick ensues or if this will be a triumphant sports story for the ages.
It would have been understandable if he had walked away, but what a rotten cherry that would have been to put on top of his delicious career. Instead, he's back in a way that will provide a very real source of entertainment and intrigue from here until the end of the Lakers' season, whenever that may be.
Is it so crazy to think that the Lakers, with Bryant finally back in tow, could lose Dwight Howard to free agency like they did in July and still have the same end result this season as they did in the last? Cue Jim Mora: "Playoffs?!" Believe it or not, it's looking somewhat doable at the moment.
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While Bryant initially hoped to be out only six months and return in time for the regular season, there's an all's-well-that-ends-well possibility here now because of the way this rag-tag Lakers bunch has come together. They're fun. They play free, with no shortage of freedom given by revived coach Mike D'Antoni.
Entering Friday night's game at the Sacramento Kings, they're 9-9 and 1½ games back from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The more telling revelation made Friday by D'Antoni is they're far from content with this respectable mediocrity.
"I'm OK with (the record), in the sense of, before it started, if somebody would have asked (what he thought of that record), then OK," D'Antoni said. "But now having done it, we're a little disappointed. We think we could have done better. We've still got some time, and we think we will get better."
And that's without having the 25th best player on the planet around yet.
Oops. That last part isn't a fact, per se, but rather a media distinction that came courtesy of ESPN when they got under Bryant's skin in October by putting him behind the likes of John Wall and Joakim Noah in their player rankings for the upcoming season. There was a lesson to be learned in that little side story, though, a reminder that Bryant — like Michael Jordan and other killer-instinct athletes before him — would gather every ounce of skepticism that surrounded him throughout this process with the plan of hurling it back in the faces of anyone who dared doubt him in the end.
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The challenge now, D'Antoni said, is convincing players such as Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams not to become the highest-paid Kobe fans on the planet when he's back.
"They've never played with Kobe, so a lot of times there's a lot of standing around and watching (of him)," D'Antoni said. "And you don't understand — we've been playing a certain way, so we're going to have to guard against that.
"I think what (Bryant) brings mostly is just (being) one of the best players and down in that fourth quarter, you're not like searching, (for go-to players, which) you know? What are we doing? And just his overall ability to play well. He'll try to get guys to load up on him, in the sense of, 'OK, he's carrying the wagon, now let's come on everybody, let's go."
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Point guard Steve Nash could be back next week, too, though the jury is certainly still out on what he'll be when he returns. Nerve problems have limited him to just six games this season and caused severe pain in his back and hamstrings, and Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar have done yeoman's work at the position in his absence.
The Lakers could surge from here, with Bryant channeling his inner Dominique Wilkins and showing the same bounceback ability that the then-32-year-old Atlanta Hawks star did when he recovered so well from his Achilles tendon tear in 1992. Or, of course, they could fade and flame out, the group struggling to integrate one of the game's most ball-dominant guards while Bryant himself fails to recapture any of his old magic. Even still, you'll have to watch because of Bryant (and speaking of watching, (a quick PSA here: the Sunday game is on NBATV).
At 35 years old, with 1,239 regular season games, 220 playoff games and all that international play behind him, Bryant will now attempt to leave a lasting impression for the ages. There is salary cap room under this Lakers' sky for a star to come join him this summer, but Bryant looking like himself again is the only recruiting tool that truly matters. There is a bigger picture here that goes way beyond one man and his indestructible jersey but, make no mistake, begins and ends with that one man.
That's where the real drama lies, with the end to the Bryant story and what unfolds in this most-fascinating final scene.
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