Curiosity circled inside the old arena and finally dropped down to midcourt. It was time to see Kobe Bryant play.
The Lakers had an exhibition opener Monday and nobody cared about the final score. The stats that mattered: Bryant had 13 points on five-for-12 shooting with five assists and one dive into the courtside seats for a loose ball, as if to show everybody he still had it.
He didn’t look like a player who hadn’t seen game action since Dec. 17. He tricked his age, 36, for at least one night.
“I felt fine. I felt like I could do anything I wanted,” he said.
He played almost 21 minutes against the Denver Nuggets and showed no sign of the torn Achilles’ tendon and fractured kneecap that limited him to six games last season.
His first shot in the Lakers’ 98-95 victory was way off the mark. Almost everything after that quickly answered some questions.
He had six points and four assists before sitting down with 3:19 left in the first quarter.
It was only an exhibition opener. Emphasis on exhibition. Please. But when it ended, his followers had to be impressed. Or relieved. Or something in between.
Bryant’s first stat drew gasps from the crowd at the old San Diego Sports Arena, a turnaround from the top of the key that hit the very bottom of the net. Without ever going through the top.
Yes, it was an airball.
He was better the next possession, drilling a 14-foot turnaround from the left side and then a long two-pointer near the arc.
The play that many will discuss happened near the midpoint of the quarter. Bryant tumbled into the courtside seats while diving for a loose ball, almost taking out a fan who wore a purple T-shirt with Bryant’s name on the back.
At the very least, he willingly hurled his allegedly beaten body into an ancient chair infinitely more rickety and less friendly than the highly padded courtside thrones at Staples Center.
“I was more worried about the fan sitting there,” Bryant said. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t run him over.”
Bryant’s other basket in the quarter was a turnaround from the right side over the much shorter Randy Foye.
“He just looked like Kobe,” said Lakers Coach Byron Scott. “The way he was moving, the way he was able to do that patented fall-away, take advantage of his length and his size against some of the guys that they had on him.”
He was solid as a distributor, offering a nice drop-off pass to Carlos Boozer for a short hook shot.
Then he found Jordan Hill alone on the left side for a short jumper and kicked to Wesley Johnson alone in the right corner for an easy three-pointer. Still in the first quarter, he found Hill underneath for a dunk with a perfect bounce pass.
Bryant wasn’t as eye-catching in the third quarter, making only two of six shots and committing two turnovers.
A double-clutch pump fake didn’t work against Foye but it paid off a few minutes later, Foye flying into the air as Bryant drew the foul. He made both free throws while the now-familiar “M-V-P” chant trickled down from fans.
He later elevated over Foye from the right side for a jumper but, as the quarter ended, couldn’t hit a shot from the left corner over two defenders.
Steve Nash didn’t play poorly, either, with 11 points and five assists in 20 minutes. He’ll be 41 in February.
The night wasn’t entirely clean for the Lakers. Johnson left after the third quarter because of a strained tendon in his left knee and was scheduled for further evaluation Tuesday. He started at small forward and had nine points in 24 minutes. The injury is not believed to be serious.
Jeremy Lin was more distributor than scorer (one point, 10 assists) and Boozer had a quiet six points and four rebounds.
Rookie Julius Randle had his moments, scoring 10 points and taking eight rebounds, but fellow rookie Jordan Clarkson had a hard time with accuracy, scoring 14 points on three-for-13 shooting.
Nick Young had surgery Monday on his right thumb and, as expected, will be sidelined about eight weeks. He will miss at least 15 regular-season games.