There Kobe Bryant was late last week, back at a Los Angeles Lakers practice, shooting hoops on the sidelines alone, away from his teammates but not away from media that await his pronouncement: "I’m back!"
He hasn’t uttered those words just yet, for I suspect he knows he’s a long way away from being the Kobe Bryant that he wants to be, that he needs to be, that, in fact, he must be if these old, plodding Lakers are to matter in the NBA this season.
Yet even with Kobe back, the Lakers can hardly be called a team to reckon with. Other than Kobe, they don’t have much else, and even with Kobe in the lineup last season with Dwight Howard, the Lakers still weren’t much of a threat to the better teams in the NBA.
That’s a pity, too. For in my mind, the NBA can’t be the NBA if neither the Lakers nor the Boston Celtics matter. Maybe I’m just stuck in the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era, a time when all-things-NBA centered on Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics. You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing those teams on the screen.
And when they played, you were glued to the couch, because you knew you’d see basketball played at its highest — played with the grit, the artistry and the excellence that used to be the hallmark of the NBA’s best. Theirs was a rivalry that challenged the Yankees vs. the Red Sox or Ohio State vs. Michigan or Duke vs. North Carolina.
But the only player who’s worth watching on these Celtics and these Lakers is Kobe, though no one knows for sure if, once he’s back in the lineup, he’ll be worth watching.
Old players don’t return better than they were when they had an injury like Kobe’s. To expect him to return as he was would also be a stretch. Kobe won’t be as dynamic, and his hops surely won’t be what they were before he tore an Achilles tendon in the playoffs.
Still, the anticipation about Kobe’s return heightens interest in hoops circles, just as interest was heightened for the return of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, an athletic, young player whose knee injury cost him a full NBA season. Now that Rose is playing with his Bulls teammates, is he the Derrick Rose we remember from before the knee injury?
So that’s what we wonder aloud about Kobe, even with the medical clearance he’s gotten. Will he be what he used to be? Will he be what we expect him to be? Will he be what the Lakers need him to be?
We can’t decide for sure from the news video of his shooting basketballs alone that made the YouTube circuit. We do know that we want him to be the Kobe of old; we need that Kobe to make the Lakers somewhat relevant. We want to see the new-age “Show Time” under coach Mike D’Antoni, but what we fear is that Kobe’s return — whenever he makes it into a game — won’t elevate the Lakers to anything but ordinary.
The NBA has too many ordinary teams already, and adding the Lakers to that long list isn’t what keeps the masses entertained. For now, they await word from Kobe Bryant himself, word that the Lakers and their faithful are anxious to hear, too: “I’m back!”
Or so we’re hoping.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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