The wisdom of the moment was that he wouldn’t come back, not from this. As time passed it was the opposite- he shouldn’t come back. And yet on Sunday there he was back on the court nearly eight months after Achilles surgery preparing for a game in much the same way, methodical and committed. As his admirers watched him shoot in warm-up drills it was something to consider, the impact of nearly losing his career. How would Kobe view himself now? His belief that a man was supposed to drive himself to the edge was half forgotten, look where it had gotten him. And yet this much was true. Seeing him out there it all felt familiar and complex. The older Kobe had figured out what the younger Kobe never had, that the difference between talent and fame, truth and chaos, is particularly small. Unapologetic, though somewhat humbled by this daunting Achilles fight, he still could not get around the facts. Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles and afterwards played 29% of the time. Dominique Wilkins tore his Achilles and afterwards played 82% of the time. Somewhere in the middle Kobe was expected to land. But that was not even the point, predicting what may or may not happen in his 35th year. Rather, it was how a person’s perseverance is in an odd way also their lie.
If Kobe improved when others said he was destined to fail, when nature said it was impossible to return after a devastating injury, when gravity said it too, it was all part of his Americanized story of burdening torment. The predictions of his demise have become routine enough to create a sigh. But like a war general, Kobe dragged himself into his own legend with a preternatural will to jump higher each time the bar was raised. There was a reason for this, for his relentless, crazy push. Like Frazier fighting Ali, he absorbed inspiration from the blows he withstood over time. It was a sign he still had courage. Perhaps other men do it this way too, with force and determination, energy and desire, competitiveness and conviction, but do they do it for this long?
As he prepared to face the Toronto Raptors, his first game since April 12th, there was a feeling of uncertainty about what was about to unfold. What exactly would he be? The last time he had been on the court he was weary and clinging to what was left of his body. And yet his torn Achilles did not change what has always been his private truth: fight or die trying. It was all part of the legend he had built over the years, his body suffering a similar fate as the soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg- death by brokenness- his fractured hand, his injured shoulder, his compromised knees, his wounded ankles, his back in spasms. This was a sacred challenge in which he tested himself against the sins of the world. The world is known to think of physicality with malice and Kobe is known take seriously his toughness. It is the best description of his mental talent. But since that stirring and then awful night against the Warriors, Kobe had not played a basketball game, he had not been tested, had not had to endure the speed and athleticism and sheer artistry of a NBA game.
When introduced, when hearing his name, when the crowd burst into hysteria, when seeing what he had not seen in such a long time his emotions got in the way if only briefly. His last emotional moment on the court was when he tore his Achilles. Before that, it was after the death of Jerry Buss when he spoke to the crowd and barely got through the remarks. But Sunday morning he was extremely quiet with his teammates because for the first time in a long time a lot was at stake. Kobe’s career has always been about disproving a negative. But this was another one of his nine lives. How he appeared on the court would be an impression etched in stone instead of sand. No, he did not cry but he did seem amazed by it all, the one who was supposed to be devoured was now at the precipice of his greatest miracle.
Except the miracle was not what you think you believe- too often we believe only in what we see. But miracles cling in the dark, in the hidden complexities and metaphors. It was not the early return of Kobe or his lack of vanity that was miraculous. It was what binds all of us to circumstances forced against our will, it was the climb. In a career of exceptional moments this was by far Kobe’s most compelling because of how it could have stabbed him in the heart. He made the decision that his career was holy enough be saved, it was worth all the effort it took to breathe air into it. So like a person with a delusion, Kobe listened to no one but those who mattered and he pushed himself with a vengeance to come back early. Still he missed eight months of playing ball, training camp, playing in China, opening night against the Clippers, nineteen games of the regular season. Despite the hoopla and the hype, Sunday night was a basketball game whose speed Kobe could never adjust to with his particular brand of basketball violence. He took on the identity not of a warrior but as someone recently wounded, as someone who had ruptured his Achilles and knew that just getting here was the divine order of things.
The specifics were hardly shameful, nothing rotted. But of course there was the dissection, the gutting of what happened, the autopsy, the postmortem. His passes were brilliant and off target, his shooting was ineffective except for one jab step and it all meant he was not a machine. He could not come in and just go back to how he used to be. Perhaps much of it has to do with his age and much of it has to do with his mortality and the rest of it was just plain rust and a terrible injury. But there was a moment when it really was one of those things that explain time. The NBA commercial hyping his return had Kobe montages from the time he was a young player until now and the images in that commercial and the player on the court against the Raptors merged as one as if to repeat this scintillating point: there is a line that must be walked. Between ecstasy and humility, accomplishment and struggle, injury and recovery.
He knew what people would think of this person who seemed to be half of him. But Kobe corrected that impression. He said his Achilles was fine. The other stuff…well, a butcher with a slab of meat does less of a cutting job than Kobe did when he eviscerated his game, the adjustment to the speed, the passing lane mistakes, the turnovers that had more to do with timing than they had to do with skill or desire. His penchant to self criticize in the same breath he self aggrandizes is part of his uniqueness, as if he knows great people have flaws that show from time to time. In this game Kobe passed up shots he would normally take but he was able to get into the lane and he was interested in his teammates, in helping them succeed. Quietly as it is kept, he really loves these guys, these collection of last chances. There is something about their story that is his story now. Just as he is a hero to them they are a hero to him; they could have quit on their careers. They didn’t. He could have quit on his career. He didn’t.
And so his season starts, game nineteen. It was not his basketball funeral, he led the team in steals and assists and rebounds and turnovers. But if there was a lesson, it was what we all know about ourselves and now know about Kobe: he is human after all, his body is not bionic. Imagine that. Within greatness there is discovery and it is not always perfect. But there is a certain way to climb a hill, steps to follow, a blueprint. First and foremost, as Kobe put it, he must take care of the ball. He has to adjust to the speed of the game and his teammates habits. His teammates have to adjust to playing with him. D’Antoni has to figure it all out, this sudden whirlwind that has been dropped in his lap.
All of this is true and all of this is good but it does not change the real story, the reason for the hysteria. Kobe was a Laker by birth. He was a Laker by conscience. Now he is a Laker by recovery. Even with his mediocrity on Sunday it erased none of the narrative. Few have risen the way he rose and in this city he will forever be glorified. His legend has a grip on the man who makes the bread and a grip on the man who owns the bread store. He has been the sufferer and the redeemed, the hero and the criticized. With Kobe there is always something. There is intrigue and there are complications and there are trophies. And of course skepticism and doubts. Nothing about him is ever neutral and for a reason. Not many have been Lord of the Rings nor have had the singular responsibility of being this dynamic for this long, for vanquishing his competitors as if they were bugs that needed to be crushed.
For eight months he had been a ghost. Now, at least for one night, he was an ordinary player. On Tuesday it starts again, the steps in which his history is rewritten one more time which is just the way it started for Kobe so long ago, the precocious teenager no one but Jerry West thought could play this game and be brilliant. But if nothing else his eighteen years have defied expectations, his multiple reinventions have defied logic, his persistence has defied his contemporaries, his ascension has defied reality, his intensity has defied weakness and this last act will defy his own symbolic self. You reap what you sow. You grow what you plant. And so it is with the continuing saga of Kobe Bryant trying to make one last heroic comeback before it is all over.