NEW ORLEANS -- He lost another season here, the third straight, almost a year ago exactly. Kobe Bryant returned Thursday for the first time since that January 2015 night, and he came with purpose.
“I want to get back out on this court and play and play well and try to exorcise those demons a little bit,” the Los Angeles Lakers star said.
In a 99-96 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center, Bryant achieved his goal, scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in his third straight turn-back-the-clock performance. But all throughout the game, painful memories of his most recent stop here came flooding back: the third-quarter baseline dunk, then running down the court, clutching his right shoulder, which, he later learned, had suffered a torn rotator cuff.
The injury ended his 2014-15 season but not his night. Even though Lakers coach Byron Scott and the team’s longtime trainer Gary Vitti could tell that something was terribly wrong soon after Bryant’s slam, Bryant shrugged it off, as he always seemed to do whenever he was injured in his career.
“Is something wrong?” they asked Bryant.
“My shoulder is a little messed up, but I have my left hand,” Bryant told them.
When he ruptured his Achilles in 2013, he knew his season was finished; but on that night, he wasn’t sure with his shoulder.
“I was trying to search for where the pain was coming from,” Bryant recalled. “Because when I can find where the pain comes from, then I can [say], OK, I just don’t do that. But I couldn’t find it, so I felt like I could play.”
So Bryant kept playing, using only his left hand while his right arm dangled there, lifeless. He dribbled left, passed left and shot a left-handed jumper that fell through. At that point, Scott and Vitti decided, “We have to get him out of there.”
Then Bryant went back down the court and shot a short hook shot with his left hand that nearly went in. “I couldn’t feel my shoulder,” Bryant said. A few minutes later, the Lakers finally subbed him out. After the game, Bryant downplayed the injury to reporters, saying that he would need nothing more than some ice and physical therapy.
But when the team traveled to San Antonio for the next game, Vitti knew and the test results were clear. “He’s done for the year,” Vitti told Scott. Then the two called Bryant and said that, after surgery, he would need six to nine months of rehabilitation.
“Six to nine months? I’ll be back in five,” Bryant told them.
Scott laughed. But then within a couple of days, Bryant was back on the court at the team’s El Segundo, California, practice facility, shooting jumpers with his right hand and with the torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak watched the shooting exhibition from his office overlooking the court. It seemed as though Bryant was trying to prove he was fine, but it was more than that. Bryant said he was confused, because he kept making shots, even from long range, and, somehow, he still felt fine.
Bryant spoke with noted surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who explained the severity of the injury, but Bryant kept explaining that his arm felt strong.
“And he said [that] the muscles that surround the area are really, really strong, so it’s covering up for this injury,” Bryant said. “This injury has been here for five years. It’s done nothing but got progressively worse. When he did the strength tests on my arm, the arm was still strong. He said, man, if you keep playing, you’re going to do some serious, serious, serious damage to it.
“So I had to shut it down.”
He didn’t want to, but he had to, and on Thursday, Bryant came full circle.
It also marked his third straight vintage performance. He is averaging 29.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists over his past three games. He’s also shooting 50 percent (15-of-30) from 3-point range during that stretch.
“I’m as puzzled by it as you are,” Bryant said. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
He explained that his tedious process of preparing his body to play for games (as well as recover from them) hasn’t changed.
“I think it’s the consistency of it,” Bryant explained. “In the past, when you’re younger, you can train in a program for three days and then, boom, it’s there. When you get there, I think it’s the consistency. I think it builds up over time, and you just have to be really, really patient and go through those ups and downs. It’s hard.”
He has had plenty of ups and downs this season, most notably shooting 29.6 percent during his first 17 games, when he seemed to be firing air balls left and right. At that point, did performances like Thursday even feel possible? Did he even think he could play this well again?
“That’s what made it even more frustrating, because I knew I was capable of doing it,” he said. “I knew the amount of training that I put in over the summertime. I worked like crazy. It becomes more frustrating because you’re not seeing those results, and then it becomes, ‘Maybe this is what happens when you get older. You put all the work in and there’s still nothing to show for it. You can’t do anything about it.’ And I had to be really stubborn and say, 'No'. I’ve got to continue to stay with the process as I always have and see what happens.”
As battered as his pride might have been, Bryant said he felt fine, because he knew he was doing everything that he could.
“When you know you’ve left no stone unturned, you can be comfortable in that defeat,” he said. “With that being said, I wasn’t ready to be defeated because the season wasn’t over. So I wasn’t going to quit. At the end of the season, if these games never came around, I could look myself in the mirror and be comfortable with the fact that I tried everything.”
He said he didn’t call anyone to ask for help, because there was no one who could even help him at that point.
“I was drowning, and I was all on my own, and I had to figure out how to get on top of the water and breathe again,” he said. “It was all internal.”
He has come far since then, with quite a few games in which he has looked not exactly like his old self, but not too far from it.
“I’m going to try to bottle it up for the next two months as much as possible,” Scott said. “He’s just on a nice little roll. He’s got a great rhythm right now. He’s playing great basketball.”
The most entertaining moment of Thursday's game came when Bryant hit a dagger 3 with 58 seconds to go, giving the Lakers a six-point lead and some much-needed breathing room.
After the shot -- one of three clutch 3s that Bryant sank in the final 6:05 -- went in, though, Bryant held his follow through and then wagged his index finger as he walked back up the court.
Bryant laughed when asked why he did that gesture, and he unspooled a story.
“We were just having this conversation a couple days ago about players getting dunked on, and they asked me if I’ve ever been dunked on,” Bryant said. “I said a long, long time ago by [former NBA center] Adonal Foyle. That was it.”
“And tonight, the basketball gods saw to it that Ryan Anderson dunked on me,” Bryant said, referencing the Pelican forward’s vicious slam over Bryant late in the fourth quarter. “I laughed all the way up the court [after it happened], and I thought the crowd had a good time doing it. Then when I hit the 3, it kind of added a little to it. It was fantastic. It was awesome.”
Those are apt descriptions for his play lately, all things considered. With only 30 games remaining in his career, there’s no telling how many of these performances he has left in him, making each one feel as though it should be savored before he's gone for good.