Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is defended by Toronto's DeMar DeRozan on Sunday. It was Bryant's first game back after a torn left Achilles tendon injury. Photo: AP
The messianic trailer previewing one of the most anticipated events of the year in Hollywoodland ended with the words "The Legend Continues ... December 8." Before Ron Burgundy's return to the big screen in "Anchorman 2," Kobe Bryant - the larger-than-celluloid star of the Lakers - reappeared on the NBA stage for his first game since suffering a torn Achilles tendon.
Bryant, 35, proclaimed his comeback on Facebook, linking to a two-minute video produced by the Lakers that features his No. 24 jersey being battered by wind, rain and snow; tearing in half; and then reappearing in one piece, bathed in blinding sunlight.
Partly cloudy best describes Bryant's season debut Sunday night, witnessed by a rapturous sellout crowd at Staples Center that included the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and an Elvis impersonator. His first shot attempt was an air ball, and he committed three first-half turnovers. With Bryant on the floor, the Lakers quickly fell into an 11-point deficit against the six-win Toronto Raptors.
The jumbotron at the Staples Center announcing Kobe Bryant's return to the Los Angeles Lakers line-up. Photo: Getty Images
The air stopped circulating in the building at the end of the second quarter when Bryant slipped while trying to launch a last-second shot. "I scared myself," said Bryant, who rose gingerly and left the court limping slightly on his surgically repaired left ankle.
He was back on the court for the start of the third and finished with nine points, eight turnovers and four assists in a 106-94 loss.
After the game, Bryant repeatedly used the word "weird" to describe his night. "I think the last time I took eight months off I was still in the womb," he said.
Asked how long it took him to feel normal on the floor, Bryant said: "I don't feel normal at all. I couldn't wait to start watching film and criticize every little thing. That the challenging part."
Coach Mike D'Antoni suggested that the high number of turnovers was a consequence, in most instances, of trying to make the extra pass. "Him being away eight months, you knew that was going to happen," D'Antoni said. "There's no way he can come out after eight months off and be in midseason form."
He added: "He is human, I think. You've got to understand, it's going to take a while."
That Bryant was not all the way back was made abundantly clear in the game's seventh minute when he had a path to the basket and one defender he chose not to try to soar over. Instead, he pulled up and passed out to Steve Blake, who got the ball inside to Wesley Johnson for the dunk that cut the Lakers' deficit to nine.
D'Antoni said it'll take awhile for @kobebryant to get into a rhythm & get his game legs back, but he'll improve as time goes along.— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 9, 2013
There are superstars, like Ronaldo and Madonna, whose fame makes their surnames superfluous, and then there is Bryant, whose celebrity in star-studded Southern California is such that on 710 A.M., the Lakers' official station, the local hosts refer to Bryant simply by the pronoun, HIM, as in HIM is back!
Nine years have passed since Burgundy first entertained movie fans. For Laker fans, it only seems that long since Bryant's last game. He was sidelined April 12, late in a victory against the Golden State Warriors. Bryant's injury was so serious he took to Facebook that night, posting a 300-word missive in which he described his frustration as "unbearable" and wondered if his Hall of Fame career was done.
"Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at 35?" Bryant wrote then. "How in the world am I supposed to do that?"
With his famous iron will and work ethic is how. As LeBron James tweeted at the time of Bryant's injury, "If there's anybody and I mean anybody who can come back from that injury it would be him."
Or, ahem, HIM. While Bryant was sidelined, the team jelled around Spain's mild-mannered giant, Pau Gasol, the journeyman Nick Young and the judicious shooter Jodie Meeks. Using a fast-paced, equal opportunity offense, with nine players averaging at least 8 points, the Lakers cobbled together a 10-9 record entering Sunday.
The team's success with the return of Bryant, the fourth-highest scorer in league history, will hinge on how well the newcomers are able to adjust to him and vice versa. D'Antoni said it would be a work in progress, integrating Bryant into the mix.
"The other guys can't sit around and watch him play," D'Antoni said before the game. "They're going to have to keep their egos intact. They're going to have to be aggressive. They're going to have to carry the load for a while."
He likened Bryant's return to a boulder that is dropped in a lake. "There's going to be some serious ripples," he said.
Bryant will displace Meeks, the team's third-leading scorer, from the starting lineup.
"I figured it was coming," Meeks said, "but for me personally, my role doesn't change. I just have to come in, be solid on defense, knock down shots." Meeks suggested Bryant's alpha-dog role might have to change, at least early in his comeback.
"He's a great player, but at the same time, he hasn't played in a while," he said. "We need him, but he also needs us to help him get through his rustiness."
Bryant had three assists before he collected his first point, on the second foul shot he attempted. He logged 28 minutes. Including the night he was injured, he had played at least 40 minutes in seven consecutive games as he placed the Lakers on his back last season and tried to carry them to the playoffs. D'Antoni said Bryant could expect to log roughly half that many minutes until he gets his playing legs back.
Bryant started at shooting guard but shifted to the point as the situation dictated, a concession to the fact that the Lakers are down to one healthy point guard, Blake, while Steve Nash recovers from nerve damage in his back and Jordan Farmar nurses a strained hamstring.
"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."
Eight months after Bryant mused on Facebook, "Maybe this is how my book ends, maybe Father Time has defeated me," it is significant that he is suiting up at all.
Before the game, the Staples Center Jumbotron filled with Bryant's face. Superimposed over his image were the words that formed the latest ad campaign of his sponsor, Nike: "Kobe Bryant doesn't have anything left to prove. But he will anyway."
New York Times