Kobe Bryant, in his Lakers’ return, is a star that falls to earth

Lakers star Kobe Bryant sits on the bench as he's introduced before the start of Sunday's game against the Toronto Raptors. Bryant struggled in his return from a torn Achilles' tendon as the Lakers lost, 106-94.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There were 19 seconds left in the first half when the Staples Center crowd rose to its feet and roared. It’s been nearly eight months, but everybody remembered what was happening next.

Kobe Bryant had the basketball. His teammates stepped out of the way. This was his moment. This was his memory. This was his comeback.

Well, sort of.

Bryant’s driving shot was partially blocked by Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, with Bryant crumpling to the floor and limping away as frightened fans gasped.


“I was even scared myself,” said Bryant.

It was a night of basketball immortality and human frailty. It was a night of loud cheers and quiet shudders. It was a night when the perception was as torn as Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tendon last spring, an injury from which he returned Sunday amid both undaunted hopes and unsettling fears.

Bryant’s aura was back, but his athleticism was not. His court presence was dramatic, but his court effectiveness was spotty. Fans showered him with two hours of love, but his teammates couldn’t get comfortable around him.

He gritted his teeth and pumped his fist and shouted inspiration as the fans chanted both “Ko-be” and “M-V-P.” Yet he also missed seven of his nine shots, committed eight turnovers, and rarely left the ground on offense.

And, oh, by the way, a makeshift six-win Toronto Raptors team that had just traded away leading scorer Rudy Gay beat the clearly distracted Lakers, 106-94.

“I guess it’s a start,” said Bryant afterward with a weary sigh. “A start is good.”

From the moment Bryant announced as his comeback date in a biblical-style video Friday, there were worries that expectations would be too high, too soon. Those worries were realized from his first shot — an airball hook — to the game’s final ugly minutes.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with Bryant resting on the bench, fans began chanting, “We Want Kobe.” Even though the team had played much more freely and effectively without him, Coach Mike D'Antoni relented and put him in the game with the Lakers trailing by six.

Bryant missed a three-pointer. He made two free throws. He missed a layup. He threw away a pass. He made two of three free throws. He missed a wild three. The Lakers lost by a dozen.

“It’s going to take a while,” said D'Antoni. “I know everybody thought he could, but there’s no way you can come out and be in midseason form. It’s just going to be a little while to get his legs and get his timing back.”

The hype was actually started by Bryant himself. He announced his return Friday with a melodramatic Facebook video titled, “Seasons of Legend” in which his jersey hangs in the air like some sort of deity while different types of weather buffet it, tear it and ultimately heal it. It was like two minutes worth of “The Ten Commandments,” with Kobe’s jersey starring as Moses.

The tone was set, and Sunday’s pregame ceremonies only heightened the drama.

First, Nike weighed in with a scoreboard ad that read, “Kobe Bryant doesn’t have anything left to prove, but he will anyway.”

Then the giant Lakers sheet trumpeted Bryan’s return with, “Beware the smoke, beware the flame, beware the inferno, beware the Mamba.”

Finally, Bryant took the court to music from “Star Wars,” though it quickly became apparent his legs are still rooted in reality.

The comeback is going to take time. The Lakers know it. The team didn’t just hand him $48.5 million for Sunday’s 28 minutes. His new franchise-altering, two-year contract doesn’t begin until next year.

The Lakers now have the rest of this season to hope that his hops return and his quickness resurfaces and he becomes a rebuilt version of the old Kobe instead of being, well, an old Kobe.

They are so confident of this happening. Jim Buss and the crew gave him the new deal after only watching him for a couple of practices.

Yet here’s guessing after Sunday night, they officially began holding their breath.

Bryant, meanwhile, exhaled with relief and resolve.

He was so emotional about returning to the court nearly eight months after a potential career-ending injury, he took the floor with a tight jaw as if fighting back tears, and later admitted he was feeling it.

“You try to control it as much as you can, but you can’t help but think of all the support, all the work.... It makes you appreciate this franchise and this city, it certainly brings a mortality to everything,” he said of his emotion.

Yet afterward, when asked about his performance, in typical critical Bryant fashion, he gave himself an “F.”

“This was a complete failure to me.… I don’t feel normal at all,” he said. “But that’s the exciting part. You have improvements to make.”

The night could perhaps be best summed up by one play midway through the first quarter when Bryant was thrown the ball at the top of a fast break in a one-on-one situation with the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry. But instead of taking it to the basket, instead of even jumping, Bryant shoveled the ball underhanded to Steve Blake, who then threw it to Wesley Johnson, who dunked it instead.

“It’s a matter of trusting certain things, experimenting,” said Bryant.

So it went on a night that, while billed as a comeback, was less an ending than a beginning. Of what, nobody is certain.

Twitter: @billplaschke