EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Before Kobe Bryant is expected by everyone to reboot himself as a machine again, can we let him be human for just a second?
Can we appreciate the only time he smiled really big Tuesday after his first all-out, post-Achilles-tear practice was when thinking about the prospect of having his truest and longest love—basketball—returned to him?
“Put the jersey on and walk out for practice,” Bryant said. “Felt like it was ’97 again and I was getting my first start as a pro.”
The lower jaw will jut out in ferocity soon enough.
Allow the upper teeth to bask in the light of that smile for now.
The ruptured Achilles tendon and seven-month layoff after 5,546 more regular-season-plus-playoff minutes than Michael Jordan logged in his entire career have led to serious speculation about Bryant’s potential demise. So why was he grinning so wide when using the word “mortality” after practice Tuesday?
“A much greater appreciation,” Bryant said, “ ‘cause you understand the mortality that comes along with it. Kind of being on that doorstep, y’know? So it’s always a sense of enjoyment when you actually come back.”
As he spoke, even after his extended workout, Bryant began to shift his weight from side to side the way he does when he gets really excited—the same way he does at the start of the national anthem before every game.
The guy is blessed to love what he does, an oft-forgotten fundamental, but one kids sense in Bryant’s passion and adults cannot miss in his focus. The basketball machine might appear driven by cold, mechanical execution—but those precise fundamentals and stylized movements are borne out of a love for practicing, learning and growing his craft.
He is indeed the championship hunter, reviewing every touch in playoff video footage—not every shot, we’re talking every single time he touches the ball. But Bryant was something else first.
He was the kid who put marks on his bedroom wall, much to his mom’s chagrin, and shot balled-up socks at it day and night. He was also constantly dribbling the ball in the house until his mom would tell him, “Put that ball away!” and then he’d quietly endeavor to keep dribbling with his hand inches off the ground until his mom heard that and called out anew.
So as the questions were dropped on him Tuesday about the actual logistics and specific timetables of his comeback, Bryant offered his replies like someone at work—under a considerable amount of pressure—except when he came to be reminded of what this really means to him.
“It felt good to compete, move around, play with my guys, play against my guys,” he said. He looked down, almost embarrassed that he couldn’t stop smiling. “It feels good just to get out there and move.”
Make no mistake, Bryant does cultivate the whole machine-like image. He brought it out Tuesday, too—talking about his ability to “self-assess,” scoffing yet again at ESPN ranking him the NBA’s 25th-best player, boasting how “I could adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now” and citing teammates understanding that practice intensity elevates when they “can’t (mess) around while I’m out there.”
Angry that his side had been cheated out of a point, Bryant had even barked at the scorekeeper during the full-court, full-contact scrimmage Tuesday before reporters were allowed in to watch practice.
Then, Bryant walked the tough-guy walk afterward by doing his usual insane amount of physical therapy to give the ankle its best chance of bouncing back to go “full bore” again Wednesday in practice.
Very often he is that machine. There is strange comfort in knowing he is.
“If he can’t kill, he’s not going to do it. You don’t have to worry about Kobe Bryant,” Iverson said. “I mean, that killer is in him—regardless. If he had to go out there and play in a wheelchair, he’d be the best player in a wheelchair you’ve ever seen. So you don’t have to worry about Kobe. If he’s out there, then he’s ready to be out there and he’s going to be Kobe Bryant.”
He’s half-man, half-myth at this point—and when the day comes that Kobe can’t kill, it’ll be the end of the world as we know it.
The haters will rejoice. The legions of supporters will lose a little of themselves…and a whole lot of their faith in man’s ability to be a machine.
Consider Xavier Henry, whose playing time will be curtailed and his own career likely stifled by Bryant’s return to game action, defending Bryant ardently in practice Tuesday. Henry had Bryant blanketed at the top of the key, and then Bryant suddenly created just enough space to hang and squeeze off the shot over Henry’s two outstretched arms. Bang, it dropped—and everyone looked to see Bryant’s gait change reflexively to that little strut.
A quick glance at Henry would reveal a big grin on his face, too—as if a poster on his wall had come to life. Or come back to life.
Henry was once a high school kid attending the Nike Kobe Bryant Skills Academy in 2007, paddling there in the same pool of wannabes as Chase Budinger, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Tyreke Evans, Gerald Henderson, Jrue Holiday, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson.
Their love for the game and hunger for achievement were built in part by watching and learning from Bryant. He was their model for the machine—and still is.
Which is why it’s a peek behind the curtain now to see Bryant understand his vulnerability and admit his “much greater appreciation” just setting foot back on the court.
He can be a jerk and a snake and an assassin, but he has a human heart.
He loves this and doesn’t want to give it up. It’s a humanity that Bryant, 35, and injured teammate Steve Nash, 39, shared in recent days as together they watched the Lakers on TV play without them from the team’s medical training room at Staples Center.
After emerging from that same medical training room April 12, Bryant couldn’t dribble around the house. He couldn’t jump to dunk a sock against the wall.
Now, the boy is back. All the work he put in to return to the court was foremost for that boy inside, and that’s as much as he can celebrate now.
He knows what you really want from him. He demands it of himself, too, which is why even though he allowed that he might play a game before month’s end, he absolutely will not until he knows he can execute, produce and maintain.
Like a machine, the one we all know and either love or hate.
The boy inside him is back. Next comes the legend.