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Monday, December 9, 2013
Kobe Bryant takes control of his final act

By Justin Verrier

Kobe Bryant
After eight months of recovery, Kobe Bryant returned for what may be his career's final stretch.
The final act of Kobe Bryant began with a Facebook link.

As the anticipation over his return to the court simmered, the means by which the news of his arrival would be announced became something of a hot topic among media types. With so many reporters, both locally and nationally, so closely following the daily machinations of his recovery from a torn left Achilles, could it really get past them all? Would he wait for a home game? Would his name just be there in the starting lineup one day, and that would be that?

The final word, of course, was always going to come from Bryant. Though a late adapter to social media, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar has taken to the technology’s unfiltered access like few other athletes. For a player who demands, sometimes ferociously, the ability to dictate the performance of his team, the chance to have full control over his message required little more than a natural embrace.

And so on Friday, at about 1 p.m. PT, a link was posted to Bryant’s Facebook page. There, a video could be found “exclusively” announcing his return, in a production that was decidedly Kobe.

An overly dramatic title. A slickly crafted one-scene of his No. 24 jersey being battered by the elements. A masculine score straight out of Westeros. With one 2-minute, 8-second video clip, Bryant turned a routine Sunday night game against the hapless Toronto Raptors into the spectacle of the 2013-14 season. And by broadcasting the news a full two days before the big event (and the day of another -- quickly forgotten -- Lakers game), he created a groundswell in Los Angeles that permeated through the weekend. They cooed over seeing him take the floor again at holiday parties Saturday night. They excitedly discussed his effect on the Lakers’ season at brunch the day of.

When Bryant finally arrived some 30 hours later, his feet dressed in a specialized version of his first Nike shoe, the Staples Center crowd couldn’t stand still through the national anthem, with at least one fan belting out "KOBE!" in between almost every breath of the day’s featured crooner. The usual starting lineup production was also specialized, with Bryant, the curtain call to the team’s introduction, coming out under darkness to the “Imperial March.” As Bryant toed the free-throw line toward the end of the Lakers’ 106-94 defeat, some even dared to muster an “M-V-P” chant.

This was a hero’s welcome. This was exactly the environment Bryant had taken great care to craft for the beginning of his end.

We all want to choose the way we go out, to decide the last image the world will have of us. No one desires to be remembered as sickly, clinging to the last threads of the person we used to be. Athletes spend decades crafting their legacies -- putting up all of those shots, lifting all of those weights -- and to go out on top, instead of with a whimper, well, that’s something special. In fact, clinical psychology studies have shown that when we think about experiences, we are more influenced by how the experience ends than by the experience as a whole.

Finishing his career with a title, like John Elway and others, appears unlikely for Bryant at this point; as long as he is the best player on the Lakers, Kobe will also be the best reason for another, much-needed superstar not to play for the Lakers. But by signing a two-year extension with the only franchise he has ever known, at a price that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over the length of the agreement, Bryant has ensured that, for the next two-plus years, the Lakers will be built in his image, just like they were when he was at his best. He has procured the best possible lighting for his grand finale.

If the next 226 games do, indeed, mark the end, it will not be some dour funeral. Bryant’s mere presence on Sunday created a palpable energy -- in the arena and around the league -- that this fun, scrappy, speedy Lakers team could not create for the first 19 games of the season. He is a star of a rarefied air; for a certain percentage of basketball fans, he is the only reason to tune in. Even if this slower, still-recovering rendition of Bryant never rounds back into the grizzled gunslinger that preceded it for 17 seasons, those impassioned screams that echo through the arena after his every made field goal will serve as the second line for a must-see march into the sunset.

The hope, though, is that after watching the ball and his body move to different rhythms at times during a 9-point, 8-rebound, 8-turnover, 4-assist opening performance, Bryant’s production won’t stray too far from the experience -- not just yet. The reality of his return was never going to live up to the image crafted through all of the hype and anticipation, but to see an at-times sluggish Bryant struggling to adapt, to the game and to his new surroundings, certainly didn’t quell some of the natural fears that arise after a 35-year-old suffers a career-threatening injury.

“I’m still not sure what I can do,” said a generally optimistic and upbeat Bryant postgame.

But eight months of inaction, which Bryant joked he hadn’t experienced since he “was still in the womb,” has forced the notorious control freak to come to terms with uncertainty. Prior to the announcement of his return, Bryant told ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin that his recovery also served as a process for self-assessment and self-discovery. “You’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again, every single day. I don’t know if I can,’” Bryant said. “You kind of have to dig deep and find things to keep going. It's a lot of searching, man. It’s a lot of searching.”

Now, after 17-plus years, he finds himself on the precipice of what most likely will be it. But after months of managing the unknown, Bryant made his first step toward his finale with structure of a storybook ending already in place.

Kobe Bryant cannot dictate his ultimate end. But before we come to bury him, he has ensured himself plenty of opportunities to be praised a few more times.