Ever since Kobe Bryant went down with a torn Achilles, there was no question of would he ever return. The speculation, instead, was when would this most
intense competitor return to NBA action. Through the time that he injured himself in April earlier this year, to his comeback game on Sunday night against
the Toronto Raptors, Bryant had the sports media constantly second-guessing his comeback. Would he sit out the entire season or would he recover in time
for training camp.
But after sitting out the first 19 games of the Lakers’ season, Bryant finally made his return to the Staples Center, his home, his sanctuary for 18 seasons in a
performance, which even while being forgettable, deserved to be
applauded. After all, not too many 35-year-olds, can be expected to immediately compete at such an elite level after so debilitating an injury. But this
was Bryant we were talking about. And once he set himself a target of getting back at the earliest, there was no way even the Achilles could get in his
Bryant’s legend as he makes his comeback is already cast. He is the greatest shooting-guard to have played this game behind Michael Jordan. He is
definitely rivaling Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West as the greatest Laker of all-time. His five NBA rings put him at par with Magic
Johnson in terms of championships won. He trails Jordan by only 666 points for third place on the All-time NBA points leader-board. If
Bryant were to have no further injury over the course of this season, and the next two seasons as per his new contract after that, not only will he
overhaul Jordan, but possibly come to within touching distance of Karl Malone for second place on that list. Currently, Malone, with 36,928 career points,
sits 5302 points ahead of Bryant.
But is this about points any more for Bryant? He has always made winning his utmost priority. Those five rings while placing him ahead of his peers,
Shaquille O’Neal (four rings) and Tim Duncan (four rings), are one short of Jordan’s six championships. Can he hope to at least match Jordan in that
category by the time he has done with his career? His new contract, which will pay him $23.5 million next season and $25 million in 2015-16, eats up a lot
of the Lakers' salary-cap space for the next two seasons, allowing the purple-and-gold franchise very little room for enticing a top-notch free-agent to
join the Lakers.
This season, too, the Lakers will certainly struggle to make it to the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Their 10-10 record over their
first 20 games may have been good enough to catapult them into fourth place had they been playing in the Eastern Conference, but out in the Western
Conference, the Lakers are in 11th place, a game behind the eighth-best Phoenix Suns (11-9). Last year, despite their chemistry issues and the
sudden arrival of Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers were able to make it to the 2013 postseason. This season, without Dwight Howard, and no confirmation on Steve
Nash’s return, the Lakers are definitely worse off. And their playoff fortunes may well be determined over the next two months, when the Lakers play 20 of 30 games on the road, away from
the comfort of the Staples Center.
There is also the small matter of Bryant handing over the baton, to keep the winning legacy of the Lakers intact. Ever since George Mikan played and won five championships for the franchise in the late-1940s and
early-1950s, the Lakers have had great names to carry them through every era, every decade of the NBA. After Mikan came West, then Kareem, then Magic
before O’Neal and Bryant heralded them into the contemporary NBA era. But who after Bryant? Howard’s decision not to sign with the Lakers was a definite
indication that it is difficult to play in Bryant’s shadow. How then does Kobe groom the next big Lakers star even if the franchise does manage to land a
marquee name in the foreseeable future is a question waiting to be answered.
So cheer Bryant on for all that he’s worth. Celebrate his comeback because the end of his career is even closer than ever before. But there’s still a lot
of responsibility riding on Bryant as his playing days head into the twilight zone.