Kobe Bryant's Return: A Reality Check (But an Encouraging One) from El Segundo

Kobe Bryant on the comeback trail at Tuesday's Lakers Practice
Kobe Bryant on the comeback trail at Tuesday's Lakers Practice
Jeff Weiss

The photo above was snapped shortly before Kobe Bryant levitated and plucked gold doubloons out of Pau Gasol's ears. It was one of many transcendent miracles that occurred during Tuesday's Lakers scrimmage at their practice facility.

Another highlight that unbuckled the space-time continuum included Kobe bounding over an Aston Martin, while chewing gum and rubbing Robert Sacre's bald dome at the same damn time. His hang time was so infinite that he and Mike D' Antoni carried on an Italian language conversation about Petrarch's sonnets. When he deigned to finally descend to earth, he jammed the ball so thunderously that fault lines shifted underneath El Segundo. If you felt the reverberations, now you understand why. That wasn't the rumbling from the airplanes at nearby LAX. That was all Mamba.

To hear the breathless media reports emerging from this week's practices, the previous paragraphs only read like mild embellishment. There's a tendency among local journalists and Lakers fans to believe in their own blend of magical realism. When Kobe buys Thanksgiving dinner for the team, the act is shrouded with a beatific compassion usually only seen in hagiographies of St. Francis of Assisi. When he barely avoided getting hung in "Grant Hill Drinks Sprite" fashion, the hysteria reached Lourdes level. Even the NBA's YouTube page posted the video, complete with the exclamatory caption: "Kobe Bryant Dunks in Practice!"


Mike D' Antoni told the huddled press mob that "it didn't look like there was anything he couldn't do." Gasol said Kobe looked "really good ... you can tell he's been working a lot on his own." But what else was Pau going to say? Even if Kobe tripped on his shoe laces while attempting a ankle-breaking cross over, Gasol would find a silver lining in the accident's ability to teach us a valuable lesson on the importance of the triple knot. He's "Based" in the Lil B sense of the word -- a relentlessly positive, 7-foot, Catalonian judgment-free zone.

But to quote Allen Iverson, the ultimate authority on all dress rehearsal-related matters: we're talking about practice...not a game...practice." Give Kobe credit: He seems more measured than almost anyone. In an interview with ESPN's Dave McMenamin, Kobe called it a "really strong lay-up." He also invoked the feeling of "Bambi legs" and the usual aches and pains that accompany 50,000-plus professional minutes.

If the Kobe-centric focus of these columns feels obsessive, just consider the circus on Nash Street. There were camera crews from CBS and KTLA, old media, new media, and international media. All of them craning their necks along the sideline, taking shaky iPhone footage in the shadow of championship banners, retired jerseys, and an American flag. When the horde rushed the players and coaches after practice, a bespectacled Chinese television reporter boxed me out. His fundamentals were immaculate. I recommend that someone offer him a 10-day contract.

I assure you that none was there to ask about Nick Young's critical assessment of the "Bound 2" video ("it's tight.") They were there to see #24 at age 35, the new $48.5 million dollar man, starting his comeback from a normally career-killing injury in El Segundo, a city most famous as the place where Q-Tip left his wallet.

During the half hour of media access, the anemic dunk was the only bucket that Kobe scored. He got stripped once trying to drive into the paint. Several passes were intercepted or deflected. Several other dazzling no-look darts suggested that the third-act template is Magic Johnson, not Michael Jordan. After he found a cutting Jordan Hill for a basket, he crowed to the defense, "You think you're just going to double me like that?"

It's absurd to read too much into a single scrimmage. No matter how durable the surgically implanted micro-fibers are in your heel, you don't just return at full strength. Doctors estimate usually peg rehabilitation at six to nine months. It's been seven since the injury and only a few practices preceded this latest run. He didn't look like the old Kobe Bryant. There was neither his pelican jaw gladiator face nor his balletic grace. He mostly looked like a gravity-bent legend with a high athletic IQ trying to figure out what the new Kobe Bryant will be.

The results were both encouraging and a reality check for those examining the Lakers through some chimerical Gabriel Garcia Marquez lens. For those with permanently seared memories of Kobe wielding the precision and deadliness of an Amazon Drone, it's unlikely if not impossible for that explosiveness to return. There will inevitably be glimpses of the 81-point game Terminator, but even those look weeks if not months away.

The positive was the unselfishness. The suddenly vital Jordan Farmar suffered a slight tear in his hamstring last Sunday against Portland, sidelining him for a month. Steve Nash remains afflicted with nerve damage, meaning Kobe is likely to become the backup point guard (and starting small forward). It might also be a sign that he's trying to mesh with the team's unselfish temperament, at least as much as you can fit when you're a 15-time NBA All-Star who attracts as many reporters to a December practice for a .500 team, as Obama does to a speech on fixing HealthCare.Gov.

Heading into Friday night's game, the Lakers are a respectable 9-9. There's a certain cognitive dissonance in being a spoiled Lakers fan and typing that sentence. But having watched last year's team squander talent at Lohanian levels, it's refreshing to watch this patchwork squad compete. It's like narrowly extricating yourself from a toxic relationship that sucked the marrow out of your bones. No matter how fucked up things got, you kept on wooing them back with romantic gestures made at the Beverly Wilshire. And then one day it was finally over, and you realized how pernicious that pigpen dust cloud was, and how much it was hampering your team free throw percentage.

I'm not sure what the ceiling is for this Laker's team. The playoffs? A first-round upset? Or whether it's a better look to play exciting basketball, knock off the teams you need to beat to shore up franchise self-respect (Clippers, Rockets, Celtics), and invest in ping pong ball-rigging machines to fix the 2014 draft lottery.

For all the "We Want Phil" fury that L.A. unleashed at D' Antoni last season, he's done a steady job with this year's bunch. Last Sunday against Portland, they nearly came back from two 20-point deficits with career scoring highs from Xavier Henry and Robert Sacre. If you aren't a Lakers obsessive, you're making the "Who?" scrunch face at that last sentence. Jodie Meeks is finishing at the hoop like a C&R Dwayne Wade. Last week, Nick Young won a game against Detroit by taking a charge. That's like Lil Wayne winning a "Best Axeman Award" from Guitar World Magazine.

There's another practice today and a game tomorrow night against Sacramento. NBA TV has conspicuously added it to their schedule, but Kobe has ruled himself against the partially Shaq-owned team. His comeback is slated to begin "sooner than later," which leaves Sunday night against the Toronto Raptors. Staples Center. 6:30 p.m. Either Kobe launches one of the most impressive resurrections in NBA History or he doesn't.


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