In returning to practice, Lakers star Kobe Bryant faces biggest challenge of his career

Kobe Bryant's days on the sidelines should soon be over. (AP Photo)
Kobe Bryant's days on the sidelines should soon be over. (AP Photo)

The severity of the injury itself -– a torn Achilles' – makes inevitable the belief that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant comes back with an air of vulnerability. As the tendon strengthens, his stamina strengthens and his skills slowly, surely sharpen, the most overriding question that Bryant must ask himself in this comeback is simple: How much of Bryant does Bryant need to be before returning to the Lakers' lineup?

[Photos: Kobe Bryant documents his recovery on social media]

Within the Lakers practices, the private belief has been this: Kobe Bryant could hold his own right now, but he wouldn't be himself yet. And truth be told, who could be so soon? Not Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, not anyone.

The fact Bryant can walk back onto an NBA floor and still be a competitive talent with two practices is a testament in itself, but that'll never be the standard for Bryant playing for these Lakers. Beyond the sturdiness of the tendon, his next priority has to be taking the time to make sure he understands how he needs to play; what he has, what he's still regaining, and, what could be gone forever.

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This is a comeback for the ages, the return of a player against whom two generations of the NBA have measured themselves. They will come to test Bryant, and there will be little chance to ease back into the lineup. It's different for him, and always has been. This is why he has to take his time now, be patient and make sure that he's doesn't leave himself vulnerable.

"You've got to be honest with yourself, and if you have those limitations, then you've got to figure out a way to be effective around those," Bryant told reporters at the Lakers practice facility Tuesday. "You can't be stubborn about that. If there are certain things that I used to do that I can't do now, I won't try to do them. I've got to figure out another way."

Bryant has been ruled out of Friday's game against the Golden State Warriors, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said, and league sources say that he's ruled out the possibility of returning against Sacramento on Sunday in the Staples Center.

Once the Lakers go East for games in Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit next week, Bryant will be on the cusp of his comeback. Ultimately, a most impatient star needs patience. The choice to play isn't on the organization, but Bryant himself.

The genius of Bryant has forever been in the details, the hours upon hours of repetition, the preparation of mind and body, the understanding of edges large and small that separated him and everyone else. He isn't chasing a championship this season, as much as he's chasing his own basketball mortality. At 35 years old, Bryant should've been on a steep decline a year ago. Only, he had been playing at the highest of levels. He defied everything, defied everyone – until that Achilles' snapped in April.

For Bryant to be back on the floor running full contact scrimmages with his teammates, to be back after seven arduous months of post-surgical recovery and rehabilitation, it "felt like it was '97 again and I was getting my first start as a pro," Bryant told reporters.

Now, Bryant looks around the NBA and so few of his original peers are left – a Steve Nash here, a Ray Allen there. The Class of '96 has come and gone, and Bryant has found a way to still dominate among the next generation of players. Two years ago, Bryant and I were talking about the end for him, about the circumstances that would cause him to finally let go, finally retire.

"Just thinking about some of the guys that I take advantage of now, taking advantage of me later – that doesn't sit too well with me," Bryant told me.

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They will be waiting for him upon his return now, a league of stars young and old promising to search out Kobe Bryant and test his vulnerabilities. This is the mystery of the comeback, the uncertainty, the truth every aging star faces in the sport. For Bryant, the stakes are different. Around the NBA, they've waited a long, long time to take advantage of him. They've been coming for him, and Kobe Bryant kept holding them off, holding them off.

Now, this is Kobe's chance to do it again, and maybe, just maybe, this will be his greatest championship of all.