Source: USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — On the eve of Kobe Bryant’s highly-anticipated return, he watched film.
That included game film, of course, because that’s part of his personal job description again now that he’s refused to let Father Time force him into early retirement. But it also included a family viewing of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the third installment of the original trilogy and, fittingly enough, Bryant’s personal favorite.
As Bryant revealed in a postgame news conference that was an entertaining reminder of why he’s one of the most fascinating figures in all of professional sports — one in which he gave himself an F for his nine-point, eight-turnover performance in his Los Angeles Lakers’ 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors but offered so much thoughtful insight as to why he’s so optimistic about what lies ahead — he recently showed all six Stars Wars movies to one of his two daughters.
“I had my kid watch every single Stars Wars, Episodes IV, V and VI, and then start I, II,” Bryant said. “We literally just finished it last night.”
This window into his world was opened because of the curious pregame introduction music he chose for his return — Darth Vader’s Imperial March — and news reporters who so enjoy mining his mind asked him what they should think of the song. He explained he’s a big fan of John Williams, the composer, and this little mystery was solved.
But anyone who has seen all six movies knows there’s a world of difference between the first trilogy and the second, that the name of the franchise might be the same, but the quality of the production was not. And therein lies the question about this twilight challenge on which Bryant has now officially embarked: Will the Lakers’ franchise player ever come close to matching his original self again, or will this second trilogy of sorts be forever remembered as the project that left even his most loyal fans wanting more?
The answer didn’t come against the Raptors, even if there were so many moments of rust and so many warnings signs that he may never be the same again. His first shot attempt couldn’t have been any worse, and it wasn’t the fact that it was an airball that stood out as much it was the awkward and uncomfortable way he went to a running sky hook that isn’t typically part of his repertoire.
He didn’t score for the first time until midway through the second quarter. “Kobe Time,” as Lakers fans refer to the fourth quarter, became “Raptors Time” when everything from isolation attempts to playmaking attempts fell flat. Bryant finished with nine points on 2-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes.
The answer won’t come Tuesday, either, when Bryant tries again, against the Phoenix Suns, after a few more dozen hours of film study are complete. He deserves a five- or even 10-game window before bold judgments can be made. And with the candid and self-effacing way in which he analyzed his own game, you get the sense no critic could come down harder on Bryant than himself. As such, we should watch and wait.
He wasted no time in watching his own unimpressive performance, hitting the play button while lying on the trainer’s table after the game and before addressing the media.
“I don’t feel normal at all,” Bryant admitted. “I couldn’t wait to start watching film and start criticizing every little thing (after the game), you know what I mean? I’ll go home tonight and I’ll watch it all over again, but that’s the exciting part. … I feel very optimistic, like I know exactly what I need to do. That part is exciting.”
Asked to give himself a grade for his first game back, Bryant said, “F — It’s an F. For me, it’s an F. No question.”
A few more honest gems from his self-assessment:
• “There’s a bunch of things I completely messed up on.”
• “(The game was) a complete failure to me.”
• On taking the floor again after eight months away recovering from the Achilles tendon tear: “Weird. It was really weird. I think the last time I had eight months off I was still in the womb. It felt good to get out there.”
• Last but certainly not least, when asked if he felt as if he returned to form: “Right now, my form is a horse(expletive) form, so I need to work on that a little bit.”
As he said so many times, this will be a process. Bryant must not only learn himself again, but also learn how to best fit within the context of this rag-tag bunch that had found its own successful style while he was gone.
“It’s like chopping a tree,” he said of proving skeptics wrong for the latest time. “One swing of the ax is not going to get it done. You just have to keep at it and keep at it and keep at it and keep at it, and stay focused internally on what you have to do to improve. You know how it is – you see it in other sports all the time. A player is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but he throws three (interceptions) and then he’s horrible. So it just happens. You’ve got to stay the course.”
This wasn’t Return of the Jedi, for there was very little Force within this version of Bryant. It wasn’t even Revenge of the Sith, the finale of the new trilogy, because even Count Dooku would likely have been able to defend Kobe with the strangly unsure way that he played. For better or for worse, this movie has been launched.
The good news, as Bryant sees it? The box office won’t be closing anytime soon.