LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant watched his 3-pointer drop through the net and for one oh-so-fleeting moment Tuesday night, that familiar, ruthless scowl – the same one that has melted opponents and teammates alike – returned to his face.
Bryant would leave the court a few minutes later with 45 points, exiting to the faint chant of "Ko-be! Ko-be!," a much friendlier response than the chorus of boos that greeted him at the start of the evening. He had led the Los Angeles Lakers through a stirring comeback that had seen them erase the Houston Rockets' 12-point lead in the final 92 seconds. Were it not for Shane Battier's cold-blooded three and an iffy non-call on the final possession, Bryant and his teammates could have even skipped off the floor with an improbable victory.
It was easy then to think that this was exactly what Bryant needed on opening night. Those thrilling final two minutes lit his competitive fire. He barked at the officials. Encouraged his teammates.
Given time, this could be the start of something positive. Probably not enough to make him cancel his trade wish, but at least maybe now he'd be willing to plow ahead, head down, while the Lakers assessed whether a deal was really in the best interest of both parties.
Unfortunately for Lakers fans hoping for a happy resolution, what preceded and came after those 92 seconds suggested that Tuesday night was not a new beginning for Bryant in Los Angeles, but rather the beginning of the end.
After showering and dressing, Bryant stood in front of his locker, stared into the cameras and said all the right things. He saluted his teammates' effort. He talked about his excitement for the season and said he is not fretting about his future. The Lakers' next game against Phoenix is his only worry. If the team doesn't trade him, he'll continue to play "110 percent."
And all those boos that rained down on him during introductions and continued the first three times he touched the ball? Those same jeers that longtime Lakers observers claim Bryant had never heard before from the Staples Center faithful?
"I understand where the fans were coming from," he said. "They didn't understand the whole situation because I'm keeping my mouth shut like I should."
What did come out of Bryant's mouth on Tuesday sounded hollow. He looked more resigned than encouraged, and that, in itself, represents a change.
There was a time when Bryant could play through anything. His feud with Shaquille O'Neal. His rape trial. The San Antonio Spurs still wince at the memory of Bryant jetting in from a Colorado courtroom then hanging 42 points on them in the 2004 playoffs.
"I think, above all, his mental strength is probably the best in the game and one of the best of all time," Battier said after the Rockets' morning shootaround. "It's evident when he steps on the floor."
Not Tuesday. Bryant was his usual dazzling self overall, but he also appeared disconnected at times, weary at others. He missed 19 of his 32 shots and, uncharacteristically, nine of his 27 free throws.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson blamed Bryant's shooting woes on his sore wrist and fatigue, and he has a point: Bryant hadn't practiced much in the previous week before playing 42 minutes. In addition to shouldering his usual offensive load, he also spent much of the night chasing Tracy McGrady, a rugged assignment for anyone.
But Jackson also saw fit to question Bryant's commitment to the team only three days earlier when he said his superstar guard "obviously hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor."
Bryant's effort isn't in question as much as his mental state. Jackson called the team's latest angst-written chapter "curious" even by L.A. standards. And while the Lakers, who annually lead the NBA in sizzle and shock, tend to embrace spectacle – a pregame video montage celebrating the franchise's 60th anniversary ended with "DRAMA IS HERE. CAN YOU FEEL IT?" – the events of the past few months appear to have worn down everyone involved.
Jackson insists he's not worried about Bryant's younger teammates getting swept up by the ongoing circus. "They're starting to get pretty accustomed to it," Jackson said. "I think they'll be comfortable with it. I don't think we'll have any problems with these kids."
Regardless, Bryant no longer has battle-tested veterans like O'Neal, Rick Fox and Robert Horry surrounding him. In the third quarter, he could only watch as Kwame Brown tried to bat a rebound to Luke Walton, whose efforts to corral the ball resulted in it arching high into the air before dropping through the rim for a Rockets basket. Take away those two points and it's tied up.
The media circus doesn't figure to pick up and move on until the Lakers trade Bryant or strike a peace treaty with him. Magic Johnson, the franchise's legendary point guard-turned-owner, announced on TNT that the team needs to resolve the situation within a week.
Said Bryant: "He's the owner. He must know something."
For now, however, Bryant has vowed to give his 110 percent and keep his focus. McGrady, for one, thinks that won't be easy.
"It's very difficult," McGrady said, "because (the story) is going to keep popping up every day. It's on TV. The media is going to keep bringing it up. He's a high-profile athlete.
"He's been with the Lakers 12 years, won three championships with them, and the things he's done in that uniform, (the story) is not going to go away. Not with him."