Knowing Kobe Bryant, it seemed like a given that he would demand the ball immediately after tip-off, charge down the lane on the very first possession and launch off his left foot for a vicious dunk to prove his surgically repaired Achilles tendon was as good as new and the Mamba was back to dominate his foes.
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. Although Bryant did assist the Lakers’ first basket on Sunday, he missed his first two shots and committed two turnovers before hitting his first shot more than halfway through the second quarter. The ways he took those first shots said everything about the supposedly bulletproof 35-year-old’s condition, that he is still every bit a mortal — maybe a little less mortal than you and me, but mortal nonetheless.
His first shot was a weird, sweeping right-handed hook shot in which he jumped to the side, rather than up, off that left foot. It was clear he did not immediately trust the Achilles. His first bucket, a left-handed bank shot from the left side of the hoop, was flat-footed, more in the wrists than the lower body. There were signs like those all over the Lakers’ 106-94 loss to the Raptors that this was Bryant’s first game in close to eight months.
It wasn’t just his 2-for-9 shooting mark, en route to nine points, or his eight turnovers. It was the rigidity of his legs on defense, where he looked hesitant to bend his knees, shift his weight onto the balls of his feet and stretch his heel tendons in the way a proper defensive stance requires. On offense, he shuffled around and into the lane, half-jumping for floaters or whipping passes that were sometimes effective, like a nifty drive-and-dish to Pau Gasol in the first quarter, and sometimes not, like his attempted feed that had no chance of reaching a cutting Jordan Hill in the fourth quarter.
Bryant has always emulated Michael Jordan and now he finally has completed the look. As Bryant eased his way through his return, he greatly resembled a Wizards-era Jordan feeling his way back at the age of 38. From a subjective standpoint, the offense ground to a halt when the ball got into his hands. From a statistical standpoint, the Lakers were 37 points better with Bryant on the bench. Bryant’s true believers on social media moaned about his Lakers teammates not moving without the ball and complimented his shot selection, which was full of shots he makes when healthy. But to pretend the Lakers’ inactivity wasn’t related to Bryant himself or that those shots are still makeable for Bryant in his condition was, in effect, grasping in the dark for excuses.
Where Bryant departed from His Airness’ example, however, was in his comments after the game. Jordan spent his entire first year talking about the gradual process of the comeback, and while his absence was more than three times longer than Bryant’s, he didn’t have a catastrophic injury other than age (although some might call age the ultimate catastrophic injury, since it’s the one health condition that kills almost everybody).
Hearing such lines come from Jordan’s mouth wasn’t weird, because while he was known as the ultimate competitor, Jordan strove to give the most vanilla quotes. Bryant has never filtered himself in that way. He called his performance “horse [expletive]” and, while acknowledging that his comeback will not be quick or easy, sounded predictably unhappy about that reality.
And therein lies the reason Bryant seems destined to get back to dropping 25 points a game and delivering fourth-quarter daggers, if not this season, then sometime before his two-year extension is up. Bryant has never devoted his energies to P.R. He won’t sugarcoat his struggles as a form of damage control to protect his legacy. He won’t shoot 2-for-9 and whine about the Achilles or dream up some other malady to rationalize any poor play.
He’ll just say that he played like horse [bleep] and work to get better. And pretty soon, he won’t be playing like horse [bleep] anymore. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be Kobe, which despite how he looked on Sunday, we have a feeling he still is.