I don't know if anybody is aware, but Kobe Bryant is close to making his return to the basketball court for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon last April. He won't be back this Friday against Sacramento, but has not ruled out a return two days later against the Toronto Raptors. Oh, who am I kidding ... unless you've been living under a rock for the past month, you have most certainly heard about it, because its just about all we've been talking about in Laker Nation, especially since the team signed Kobe to a lucrative contract extension before he even returned the court, ensuring
We've analyzed all sides of Kobe Bryant's return. What it will mean for the offense, what it will mean for the defense, for the team's identity ... there are tons of ways to look at Kobe's return and how it will affect the team, and the analytical results haven't always yielded positive opinions. That's because the Lakers have found themselves in a pretty good place in Kobe's absence, putting forth a team that rarely fails to entertain and compete. Sure, they aren't winning as many games as you might normally expect a Lakers team to win, but they are absolutely defying the low expectations Lakers fans came in with, and for the vast majority, there is a satisfaction behind watching this team scrap its way to .500 that was never felt with last year's higher visibility version of mediocrity.
Kobe will, by his very nature, change a lot of what makes this team unique, and not all of those changes will be positive. The team has won by being a true team, with nobody bigger than anybody else. Kobe may be able to fit into that scheme, but it seems more likely that the team dynamic will change to be Kobe-centric, as every one of his teams have done before. The team has won with a surprisingly average (in a good way) defense predicated upon a high level of effort from players who aren't the most defensively talented, and its been a good long while since Kobe has spent much energy on defense at all, except for rare occasions. The team has won by defying expectations and being scrappy underdogs, and neither the low expectations nor their role as underdogs will fully survive Kobe's return. These are all cogent and coherent arguments (some of them made by yours truly) about why Kobe's return may not be all that great for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Allow me to now make the important counter-argument: Who cares? We get to see Kobe Bryant play basketball again.
With all the complexities involved with introducing the game's most strong willed character into a team with an excellent, but probably fragile, team chemistry, it can be easy to lose the forest through all the trees of analysis about how Kobe will affect the team. But the forest remains as important as it ever was. The simplest motivation for following and enjoying the sport of basketball is because it brings you joy to see athletes of the highest caliber compete in such a majestic sport. And nobody has been more responsible for joy in Lakers Nation over the past 20 years than Kobe Bryant.
When Kobe limped off the court last season, I can't have been the only one who initially questioned whether we'd ever see him play again. The answer to that question didn't seem any more positive when the diagnosis of the injury ended up being the worst case scenario. A torn Achilles tendon is one of the most serious injuries an athlete can suffer, and it is an injury that has ended the careers of younger men than Kobe. The fear we suffered it that moment, wondering if one of the game's greatest careers would end because of a fluke injury instead of the player's own terms, was very, very real.
Kobe quickly assured us he would return, and you'd be foolish to bet against Kobe achieving anything he sets his mind to. His prognosis kept improving with every status update, every "shattered" timetable. Now, less than eight months after suffering the injury, we hear that Kobe is close to being ready to return. When he does see the court, there is no telling what we will see. He may not be the same player he once was. He may change the team dynamic in strange ways. He may even ruin the team's chemistry and destroy whatever magical string has been holding the team together in his absence. Even if the worst occurs, however, we should still cherish his return.
Soon, Kobe Bryant will return to the basketball court, back where he belongs, back where he has always belonged, and our world, the world of Lakers Nation, will once again make sense. May he bring us beauty. May he bring us glory. Above all, may he bring us joy. The latter, at least, won't be difficult to achieve. All it will take is seeing that familiar face in that familiar jersey. Even if he can't do the things we remember him for, just seeing him play is something worth cherishing.