LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant’s head bobbed and nodded over and over. Between the locker room and the loading dock inside Staples Center on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers star had been asked to rewind his mind back to the end in Dallas a season ago, back to the darkness of a defeat that left him fearing finality. Eyes closed tightly, Bryant repeated the words, “Yes … Yes … Yes …"
Finally, Bryant let out a long sigh and insisted, “I wondered how I was ever going to play basketball again.”
His arthritic knee had gone bone on bone, making every step an excruciating exercise. Bryant felt like the end was creeping closer. He couldn’t practice and couldn’t move with authority on the floor. “There were a lot of thoughts, a lot of self-evaluating going on, wondering, how can I ever be effective again? How am I going to play despite this knee? I couldn’t move. It was just so painful. There was nothing I could do.
“But now I feel brand new, man.”
The solution had come with blood-platelet therapy in Germany, a doctor who repaired the knee with a procedure that has athletes now flocking overseas. The pain is gone, the movement is back, and Bryant’s 38 points in a 104-100 Game 2 victory over the Denver Nuggets resembled something straight out of the time capsule. He was devastating in the low post because the strength of that knee again allows him to hold off defenders. He was deadeye on the perimeter and responsive of the need to play through Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on the inside.
Bryant made that one-legged Dirk Nowitzki jumper and a coast-to-coast no-look pass to Bynum for a Showtime flush. He chased down Al Harrington on a fast break in the fourth quarter and pinned Harrington's bid for a dunk against the backboard.
“It’s not like he’s got an astonishing vertical,” Bryant said. “I didn’t have to jump too high.”
Bryant smiled coyly, but he knew the truth. The play represented something for him, for these Lakers: another chance. A chance to compete, to be champions again. They have a long way to go, but Bryant, Bynum and Gasol have exploded into these Western Conference playoffs. Bynum has blossomed into a dominant center, and Gasol is playing with such passion and precision. No, the Lakers never should’ve allowed Denver back into Game 2 after blowing a 19-point lead, but they still made the plays to close out the Nuggets.
“I never really understood the talk at the beginning of the year,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “I look at Andrew – his talent, his work ethic – and I look at Pau, and I’m looking at a Big Three. And I’m asking myself: 'Am I missing something? Am I missing something here?'
“And then what Ramon [Sessions] has brought to us, and the way Metta [World Peace] was playing, and I just never understood people writing us off."
When a shin injury kept Bryant off the floor for seven straight games in the final month of the regular season, it turned out to be a blessing for him and these Lakers. The rest has benefited his body, and his absence afforded his teammates a chance to take more responsibility, more ownership, onto themselves. Bynum’s 27 points and nine rebounds were pure terror on Tuesday night, and he’s presenting himself like he ought to – as the best center presently playing on this planet.
Bryant believes he’s built a stronger bond with Bynum since All-Star weekend in Orlando. They’re tighter. Truth be told, Bryant feels like that’s the case with everyone on these Lakers.
“Nothing could materialize for us last year. I couldn’t be around my guys, couldn’t practice with them,” Bryant said. “And my personality could not rub off on the team. I could not give them what I’ve been giving them for the last two months.”
Rest assured, Bryant has watched one star after another go down in these playoffs, and it leaves him grateful, gratified for the chance to play. “Right now, I have the opportunity to compete again,” he said. “Last year, I felt like I was on one leg.”
And it still bothers him because Bryant has to come to understand he’s running out of time – his knee won’t stay strong forever. He closed his eyes in the bowels of the Staples Center late Tuesday and hit the rewind button back to the uncertainty, the unnerving end in Dallas last spring. Something else still stays with him, still bothers him, and probably always will.
“I couldn’t give Phil all of me for his last season,” Bryant said.
Phil Jackson is gone now, but Bryant’s finding his way with Mike Brown, with these Lakers, and most of all with a knee that gives him the chance to go the distance again. His longtime trainer, Tim Grover, has been with him most of the season and won’t leave his side much during these playoffs. Now, everything’s changed and Kobe Bryant feels like Kobe Bryant again. When everyone else was resting, Bryant slipped into to Staples Center to take shots around 10 p.m. Monday. Those are things he can do now, things that his knee will support. Feels like old times, except for the pain.
“I couldn’t give Phil all of me, and I couldn’t give it to my teammates either,” Bryant said. “But now, it’s like, ‘Let’s see. I’m here. I’m 100 percent. I want to see what’s what.' "
When Bryant walked out of the arena in Dallas a year ago, it felt like a dark cloud trailed him. It felt like the end, and it frightened him. Things couldn’t go on like that for him, and the solution finally showed itself over a long, hot angry summer.
Now, he chases his sixth championship – only he feels like he’s chasing it for real. No one gets cheated this year. No one beats Kobe Bryant without getting his best shot, and he wondered whether that would ever be true again.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Adrian Wojnarowski: Amar'e Stoudemire's fire-extinguisher punch may forever hurt reputation
• Tim Brown: Albert Pujols says Angels are close to breaking out of their offensive funk
• Pat Forde: Hansen the human tries to outshine Kentucky Derby hopeful Hansen the horse
• omg:! Carrie Underwood completely trusts NHL-player husband Mike Fisher