After nearly eight months of recovery from a torn Achilles tendon, Kobe Bryant is back on the court for the Los Angeles Lakers.
He's confident his game will soon join him.
Bryant had nine points and eight rebounds in his season debut, but Amir Johnson scored a career-high 32 points for the trade-depleted Toronto Raptors in a 106-94 victory over Los Angeles on Sunday night.
With waves of cheers washing over him from opening warm-ups, Bryant acknowledged a bit of a struggle to keep his composure when he finally stepped back onto the same hardwood where he got hurt April 12. Although Bryant is proud of his perseverance through months of rehabilitation, he's more grateful to be back in competition — even when it doesn't turn out well.
"I think the last time I had eight months off, I was still in the womb," he said. "It felt good to get out there."
Bryant began his 18th NBA season by going 2 for 9 with four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes. Coming back from what could be a career altering injury, the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history returned in time for Los Angeles' 20th game of the new season, only to struggle with his shot, his timing and his new teammates.
"My rhythm is completely out of sync," Bryant said. "But this is a start, and I guess a start is good. ... I don't feel normal at all. I couldn't wait to start watching the film and criticizing every little thing."
Adoring fans cheered Kobe's every move and forgave every misstep, but Bryant couldn't rally the Lakers late against a short-handed opponent that hadn't beaten the Lakers on the road in nearly 12 years.
Bryant was touched by the fans' reception and his teammates' encouragement, although his ruthless competitive nature chafed against his emotions before the opening tip.
"You try to control it as much as you can, but you can't help thinking about the hard work," Bryant said. "You try to put it to the side as much as possible and do your work. ... It makes you appreciate the game, this franchise and this city, and all we've been through."
Nick Young scored 19 points for the Lakers, who went 10-9 without Bryant this season, forging a winning record without the five-time NBA champion and with little help from fellow injured MVP Steve Nash.
"I finally got to see what Showtime is all about," said Young, who joined the Lakers in the summer. "This is my first time out there with him, and I definitely deferred to him a lot and looked for him a lot. That's what the fans wanted. The whole thing was about Kobe tonight."
But the Lakers never led, and Toronto improbably snapped its five-game losing streak despite playing without forward Rudy Gay, who is expected to be traded to Sacramento on Monday as the centerpiece of an apparent seven-player deal.
"(Bryant) was a little rusty, and you could tell because a lot of his shots were short," said Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in Los Angeles watching Kobe. "We were going against him his first game back, but he's going to get it going again and he'll be back to the old Kobe."
The building had the buzz of a playoff game before the opening tip, with thousands of fans training cameras on Bryant during opening warm-ups. The building erupted in loud applause at every mention of Kobe, who was introduced last in the starting lineup to the thunderous strains of "The Imperial March" — Darth Vader's theme from "Star Wars."
The crowd roared again the first time Bryant touched the ball, and he found Robert Sacre underneath the hoop for an assist on Los Angeles' first possession. With his wife, Vanessa, and two daughters sitting courtside, Bryant hit a free throw for his first point in the second quarter, followed shortly by an 8-foot, double-pump, left-handed bank shot for his first field goal.
Bryant added a signature 22-foot face-up jumper later in the period, but also showed clear signs of rust and unfamiliarity with his new teammates.
"We're going to have to carry Kobe a little bit, because of course he's not 100 percent, not in game shape," said Xavier Henry, who scored 17 points. "It's going to be fun. It's a long year, and he's just getting back."