Kobe Bryant barely slept last night. His private helicopter didn't land in Orange County until almost midnight. Then the 35-year old Lakers legend stretched, soaked in an ice bath, and watched video of last night's ransacking until the sun glared back through the blinds.
Kobe detailed his insomniac plans in the post-game press conference after last night's Lakers 106-94 home loss to the Toronto Raptors. As this sentence is being written, he's half-frozen and seething, hurling Latin and English epithets at a plasma screen looping his 9-point, 7-rebound, and 8-turnover performance.
“I'm insanely critical. I give myself a 'F,” Kobe responded when asked to give a letter grade to his first night back. The Black Mamba called his form “horseshit.” Speaking to a swarm of tape recorders, he seemed frustrated but undaunted, anxious to return to his Death Star, pick apart his flaws, and plot revenge.
After eight months of anticipation, the curtain officially lifted Sunday night on the most hyped comeback since Jay-Z un-retired via Budweiser commercial. And like Jay's official return, Kingdom Come, this was depressingly mortal. For every instance of stereo-optic court vision, Kobe forced difficult cross-court passes that got intercepted or batted away. He lumbered step-slow and Gumby-legged, unable to penetrate and finish at the hoop. He unleashed the occasional herky-jerky move reminiscent of the knee-braced guy in your adult basketball league rumored to have played D1. It was an underwhelming comeback, on par with George Costanza sneering at a rival that, “the jerk store called and they're all out of you.”
And it was to be expected. Kobe told reporters that eight months off was “the longest I've been away from the game since the womb.” Throughout his rehabilitation, he's consistently measured expectations. After the game, Mike D' Antoni pointed out: Without the benefit of training camp, you can't be in mid-season form your first game back. (Of course, before last night's match-up, the coach told reporters that he expected “Kobe Bryant to be Kobe Bryant.”)
If collective hopes outstripped reality, it's partially due to the myth making that's stopped just short of adorning him in a toga, olive wreath crown, and triton. There was his “I'm Back” Facebook video, which combined the aesthetics of an Evangelic Christian straight-to-DVD film with the “Bound 2” video. Nike dropped a 30-second black-and-white bit of iconography narrated by Ice Cube. And Kobe chose Darth Vader's Imperial Death March for his theme music before tonight's game.
“They just know that I love [Star Wars composer] John Williams,” Kobe told reporters after the game.
There's something admirable about Kobe borrowing the anthem of an intergalactic despot who's part-man, part-machine. It's an embrace of man-in-black villainy on par with Johnny Cash, The Undertaker, and N.W.A. He's copping to being the person that non-L.A. sports fans love to hate. Forget empathy with the scrappy underdog; he identifies with the aging imperial warlord trying to stave off contenders to the throne. Know thyself.
This was Staples Center and this was the return of Kobe Bryant, so the place initially rumbled like it was under Turbo-Laser attack. During pre-game introductions, a giant white cylinder descended from the rafters with projections of each player. You-know-who was last, complete with requisite roars and a flaming mantra: BEWARE THE MAMBA. Roughly one-third of the sold-out crowd rocked Kobe jerseys: ponytailed Euro-trash schlubs donned the green Lower Merion high #33, while tow-headed first-graders too young to see Kobe & Shaq wore his old #8. Most sported #24, the number worn during his last two championships.
Pau Gasol is the only Laker remaining from those glory days. And judging from his reception of late, fan memories are fast fading. Plagued by injured ankles and various other lower limb ailments, Gasol looked like Lurch: wobbly, cadaverous and tentative. Booed by fans, he finished with just 7 points on 3 of 11 shooting. Led by Amir Johnson's blistering 32 points, Toronto exploited the Lakers frontcourt weaknesses, outscoring the Lakers in the paint nearly two to one.
But if Bryant seemed unready for the rigors of the NBA, the rest of the team looked equally gun-shy. There were no attempts to set screens to free him up for open 15 footers. The starters played without rhythm, overly reverent and unsure of what spots to be in. For this team to win, they'll have to take him off the pedestal. Without the injured Jordan Farmar, they lacked a point guard capable of forcing defenses to collapse and create open perimeter looks. And with Kobe back, D' Antoni needs to start from scratch to build rotations that work.
There were a few bright spots. Every time the starters left, the second unit (as usual) nearly usurped the lead. Xavier Henry dropped 17 points in just 14 minutes, making up for defensive lapses with screwball slashes to the hoop and clutch 3-point shots. Jodie Meeks remains a lock for the team's most improved player. Jordan Hill is playing basketball with the “Hard in the Paint” intensity of Waka Flocka, circa 2010. Nick Young deserves his own reality show and contributed this berserk triple salchow layup gone awry. This Gif is like staring into the infinite empyrean depths of swag. If you watch it enough times, your hair will turn exceedingly lustrous, your blue jeans will turn to leather pants, and a female rapper will suddenly dangle from your arm. Trust me.
The best thing you can say about this game is that it's over. If the Lakers are going to make the playoffs, they'll have to make adjustments and hope that tonight was an aberration instead of a bad omen. You aren't supposed to lose to lottery-bound teams that trade away their second-best player hours before the game. But it's still much too early to panic. Kobe may never fully regain his game, but he can only improve from here — if he ever gets any rest.