LOS ANGELES – As Sunday morning had come and gone, the afternoon lurching until it was time to leave for the Staples Center, Kobe Bryant found himself trapped between the nostalgia of a long journey back and the road rapidly unfolding beneath his worn wheels.
Eventually, everything turned to black and a sellout crowd stood on its feet Sunday night, calling Kobe's name over and over, louder and louder, and here was one of the greatest in the history of the game running onto the floor for pregame introductions and directly into the darkness. Kobe Bryant was thinking back, when he has for so long trained himself to be thinking forward.
Eight months after tearing his Achilles tendon and fearing that he could be done forever, Bryant was a lost soul between his yesterday and today, between catharsis and comeback.
"As tough as ever to find that balance of where my mind needed to be," Bryant told Yahoo Sports later outside the locker room. "As soon as the injury happened, I had doubts whether this night would ever happen. And then, I kicked it into the full gear and fought myself to not think about the end result – just think about every single day of work it would take for me to get back again."
Bryant hadn't returned expecting to be his old self on Sunday, and he was far, far from it. He tried so hard to fit himself back into the burgeoning chemistry of his new teammates, determined to be a playmaker, a passer, and yet still lacking the timing and rhythm to spare himself a glut of turnovers.
The Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors 106-94, and Bryant's 28 minutes were punctuated with surprising spryness and unsurprising sloppiness. Nine points and eight turnovers, four assists and two steals. The success had come with surviving a torn Achilles and beating back the odds, beating back age, in such a rapid return.
"Disrupted," is the word Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni used more than once to describe Bryant's impact on this Lakers lineup that had been one of the surprising stories of the young season. They need to learn to play with Bryant, and Bryant with them. Nevertheless, he's fond of this band of castoffs and characters and busts, finding a connection to them that would surprise some.
"We all kind of have the same thing now, don't you think?" Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "They've all kind of written us off as individuals. Together, we can use that as a calling card to bind us, to unite us."
No one knows what Bryant can be again, and that includes him. He's resigned himself that the explosion is long gone, that his game must evolve the way Michael Jordan's did in his advanced years: using his genius footwork in the post to get himself to the free throw line; leveraging the angles on the floor to get his shots in advantageous avenues.
This was a step on Sunday night, and Bryant isn't rushing the process. He wants his minutes limited, wants his body and mind to assimilate back into the speed of the game, into the chemistry of these Lakers. An hour after his return, Bryant completed his news conference, signed a ball, posed for a photo with a young fan and blurted out, "Hey, it's the Nike crew!" to the army of shoe executives here to examine his return.
Now, Bryant started his walk out of the Staples Center, out of the darkness and into the light again, and there was still a surreal rawness about it all. In the emptying corridor, Bryant stopped a moment to consider one final question: Through it all, what had been his greatest self-discovery?
"I found out that I had another gear, a gear that I never knew was there," Bryant said. "It's one thing to push yourself when everyone expects you to be dominant, to perform at the highest level. I had a motivation to do that.
"But it was something else all together to find a motivation when there was no end goal in sight, when I literally couldn't walk. I had to sit there and think about coming out and performing, months and months from now, but I didn't really know when that time was going to be. And you keep going and you keep working and you find out, yes, I can get there…
"And I got there."
Out of the darkness on Sunday night and into the warm embrace of one more Staples Center ovation, one more chanting of his name. Kobe Bryant walked into the light again, and it left him momentarily trapped between the nostalgia of the journey back and the road unfolding beneath his worn wheels.