by Daniel Buerge / @danielbuergeLA
Life is a little different in Los Angeles. Some say things move a little faster. Others claim it’s a slower life, one more casual. But on Sunday night, the world’s most glamorous city stood completely still.
It’s been eight months since Kobe Bryant went down with an Achilles injury. Eight months of uncertainty, turmoil and questions about the future. Eight months during which the Lakers saw the player that was supposed to be their future’s cornerstone leave for a life less complicated. To the realistic mind it’s evident that Kobe won’t ever be the same player he once was. And even though it’s unfair to judge the rest of his career by a poor performance in his return, the days of 50- or 60-point scoring barrages are likely over for good.
But Kobe’s return ended up being something much more important to the city of Los Angeles. It ended up being something that was used as a rallying point, something the fans could hang their hats on. And ultimately that’s what this is about, more than anything. It’s about the beginning of the end for Bryant. The prologue to the final chapter. And just what he’s meant to the city of Los Angeles, and his legions of fans all over the world.
While the narrative out of Sunday night will differ depending on who’s trying to tell the story, the fact that this season is little more than a Lakers dumpster fire is more than evident. The team is going nowhere, and doing so in a hurry. In fact, the team, to this point, has overachieved immensely compared to their projections, yet they still sit at 10-10, and are on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference postseason hierarchy.
This is why it’s important not to try and judge the impact of Kobe’s return on the minutes played and shots taken (and missed) in his debut. It will eventually be nothing more than a futile waste of time. Because that’s not what the story is here. That’s not why the Lakers gave him another two-year deal, keeping him the highest paid NBA player when it’s likely he’s no longer even a top-10 talent. For the Lakers it’s about recognizing what they have, even if it’s more to thank him for services already rendered than an anticipatory expectation of things to come. For a generation, Kobe has been the Lakers. For better or worse. And when Bryant went down that Friday night against the Warriors, it became brazenly clear that he wasn’t going to be around forever.
You see, for most Laker fans Kobe has represented what they love about the game of basketball for 18 years. No matter how young or old, or how many years a fan has been following basketball or the Lakers, Kobe Bryant has become synonymous with everything it means to be a Laker. And as fans flocked to Staples Center on Sunday night for a game against a rather blasé opponent, Kobe was once again their reasoning behind it.
I had the privilege of talking to several Laker fans who were in attendance on Sunday night, as I attempted to gauge just what this moment meant to each person as an individual. The results were, not surprisingly, varied, but the message they all carried seemed to carry the same tune.
“To me he’s been the best part of the Lakers for over a decade,” said Jose, a Laker fan of 27 years.
“Oh, boy. As a fan, Kobe has represented everything I’ve come to love about basketball and the NBA. To me, there isn’t one without the other,” said Selena, a Laker fan of 17 years.
“I’ve been watching Kobe as long as I’ve been watching basketball. I don’t remember the NBA before him, and I don’t want to picture the NBA without him,” said Steve, a Laker fan of 13 years.
“I remember the days of Wilt, Kareem and Magic. I remember what those players meant to me. But even after all that, I can’t deny that Kobe still means more,” said Darrell, a Laker fan of 49 years.
I guess this is what needs to be celebrated more than anything. That what we’ve been given for the last 18 seasons isn’t something we’re likely to see again. And while Facebook videos of jerseys fighting through snowstorms, silly catchphrases about wrestling bears and blackouts, and cryptic Twitter avatars are cheesy and often ridiculous, what it stands for is worth remembering. And worth celebrating.
And Laker fans agree.
Before the game even started there were fans chanting Kobe’s name. At the conclusion of a moment of silence for recently deceased South African President Nelson Mandela, a fan abrasively shouted “Kobe time!” from his 300-level seats. And when Bryant’s name was introduced in the starting lineup for the first time since April, fans stood and screamed at the top of their lungs for nearly a minute. Whenever Kobe had the ball, fans cheered. Whenever Kobe was shown on the video screen, fans got on their feet. Their hero was back. A prodigal son returned.
In the end it didn’t matter as much that Kobe played poorly. It didn’t matter that he gave himself an “F” and had four times as many turnovers as he did made field goals. It didn’t matter that the Lakers lost to a Toronto team that’s 7-12 and had only beaten two Western Conference teams before Sunday, one of which was the 4-18 Jazz. It didn’t even matter that he said Return of the Jedi was his favorite Star Wars film. (Let’s be honest, it’s Empire Strikes Back in a landslide, here, folks.)
All that mattered, for one night at least, was that Kobe was back.