Kobe Bryant against Kobe Bryant
When Kobe Bryant dons the now-familiar Sunday white Lakers jersey and steps onto the same court that's been the site of his greatest accomplishments (Raptors vs. Lakers, 9:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV), he will actually enter a new realm. For the first time he doesn't need to exceed the boundary to be remarkable. Living up to the standards he's already set would be an incredible achievement for a 35-year-old coming back from a torn Achilles tendon.
He always made us wonder what he'd do next. That's still in play today, as he makes his return from the injury that threatened to end his career -- or at the very least, end the version of Kobe Bryant that we had watched for 17 seasons. We make an exception for him. Even as he drops hints of his physical limitations, as he reports that the range of motion and explosiveness in his legs and ankles aren't what they used to be, we still hold out the possibility that he could be the same.
That's where the intrigue comes from. It's not as if he's shaking up the landscape of the NBA. He's coming back to an average team and is unlikely to elevate it to championship-contending status. We're talking about a player and a franchise that have won just one second-round playoff game since 2010. And after all the breathless speculation about his return date, it turns out we're talking about a player who missed only the first 19 games of the season. Players miss stretches like that all the time; Kobe himself missed the first 15 games of the 1999-2000 season.
The thing is, we're talking about him. Kobe is a rare commodity, one of the few athletes who can command such lavish attention regardless of which place his team occupies in the standings. Sports -- and the NBA in particular -- have a need for these iconic figures. It's a role Kobe has embraced, and yes, feeds into.
It's reached preposterous proportions, hasn't it? The buzz that started with his first practices, prompting a Los Angeles sports radio station to run ads paying tribute to the player referred to simply as "Him." The overly dramatic Facebook video with the grammatically nonsensical "Seasons of Legend" title, followed by computer-generated images of the golden No. 24 jersey buffeted by wind, rain and snow. The eager anticipation of his return, as if Mission Control was establishing contact with the first astronaut to make it through re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. And the fact Kobe's return can generate those absurdities is what makes it so wonderful.
We're paying him too much attention just like the Lakers are paying him too much money for his extension. In both cases, Kobe earned it. He's made buying a ticket or turning on the TV to watch him worthwhile so many times already that it warrants further investment. If anything, he deserves extra scrutiny now because this isn't just the comeback, it's the countdown. Kobe's contract covers 227 more games, with no promises of another contract when it's done. He's on the books for 2 ¾ seasons, no more. The moment he leaves, the NBA will be about 25 percent less interesting.
There's another way this will be a new experience for Bryant: for the first time we'll be judging him within the context of himself. He might find it liberating. Even though he came to feel burdened by the constant, self-induced comparisons to Michael Jordan, Bryant also realized it was a sign he was doing something right. And trust me, he considers one of the greatest testimonies to his career that he was the constant in an ever-evolving series of NBA debates: Kobe vs. Vince, Kobe vs. T-Mac, Kobe vs. Iverson, Kobe vs. LeBron.
Now it's Kobe vs. Kobe. The 2013-14, post-Achilles version against the player who scored 31,617 points in his first 17 seasons. In some ways it can be tougher than going one-on-one against someone else. For example, the 2012-13 season didn't raise many eyebrows or drop jaws, simply because it didn't match his peak performances. At age 34, when decline should have been evident, he put up a scoring average of 27.3 points that bested nine of his previous 16 seasons, and an assists average of 6.0 that matched his career high. Kobe took great pride in it, because he knew how hard he had to work to maintain his standards while his body grew older. The effort required was reaching the point that he wondered if he could continue to do so, or even if he wanted to. Then he tore the Achilles, and had a fresh challenge to motivate him.
In 2005, before he'd even reached the midpoint of his NBA career, Kobe told me: "I hope, one day, people will look back at my career and see everything that I've been through, everything that my fans have been through … and I just stayed steady. I didn't wig out. I just stayed steady, I stayed professional.
"And at the end of the day, when it's my last year, people can look back and say, 'You know what? He had a hell of a career, he was a hell of a basketball player, a hell of a person.' And then they'll appreciate all the years prior, too."
It's not the end of the day yet, but the sun is dipping toward the horizon. In other words, it's time to get a head start on the appreciation.
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