Jan 20, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) during their game against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Lakers 108-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant Returns Sunday -- The Legend Continues

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The wait is over.  Kobe Bryant will make his season debut on Sunday as the Lakers take on the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center.

In 1995, Michael Jordan announced his return from retirement with a two-word fax reporter saying “I’m back.”  Flash forward 18 years later and the man who many depict as the “closest player to Jordan” makes his announcement with a two-minute long Facebook video.

You can watch the video here and it’s OK for anyone to feel strong emotion:

Analyzing the video for a brief moment, the message many fans can take away is that throughout Kobe Bryant’s career, he has “weathered the storm.”

Bryant has fought and battled against some of the toughest things an athlete can go through.  At 25 years old, he was faced with sexual assault charges and, at the time, nobody imagined his name would distance itself from this dark cloud.  The charges were dropped and his future success would soon paint a different picture when you hear the name “Kobe Bryant.”  No longer do you immediately think of the controversial events in Colorado.  Instead, your initial thoughts are: “He’s still dominating this league?”

Another rough speed bump in Bryant’s illustrious career came in the 2003-04 season as well.  Teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who co-led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA titles from 2000-02, began to experience problems with Bryant.  Both superstars seemed to have issues with each other’s egotistical attitudes at the time.  Their differences can’t be solely pointed to one specific thing, but the ongoing problems surely had one common effect; they drove Head Coach Phil Jackson up a wall.  O’Neal expressed his displeasure with Bryant’s desired play style, while Bryant publicly stated that O’Neal didn’t have the motivation to stay in shape and be the best that he could.  Ending their run together, O’Neal was dealt to the Miami Heat, leaving Bryant as the lone wolf in Los Angeles to carry the load.

That came as a struggle at first, as the Lakers missed the playoffs the following season, and the departure sparked the years of Bryant being asked to win with the likes of Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, and Chris Mihm.  Safe to say, Bryant found himself in an unhappy situation.

But, he grinded through it.  By putting on some of the most amazing individual performances the NBA has ever seen, and showing why Black Mambas are cold-blooded, Bryant did the best he could in the playoff appearances the Lakers made in 2006 and 2007.  Knowing he didn’t want to stay irrelevant in the Western Conference any longer, Bryant went on record saying that he wanted to be traded if things couldn’t get better from a roster standpoint.

The storm was weathered again.  Bryant sat down with the late-great Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss to discuss the possibility of playing elsewhere.  Bryant has stated that it was that very moment, that experience, that changed his career and ultimately the rest of his life.  Buss explained his overwhelming desire for Bryant to remain a Laker for life, giving impressions that Bryant was extremely special to the franchise, city, and the fans.  But, as we all know, Buss was a genuine and respectful man.  He was going to let Bryant go if he truly wanted, as a deal with the Detroit Pistons appeared imminent.

Bryant didn’t want to be the guy that let down the most historic franchise in basketball.  It would have been a selfish move to bail on a “rebuilding” process the Lakers were fighting through, just to land on the laps of a title contender.  After listening to Dr. Buss’s comments and advice, it was clear that Bryant then flipped the switch in terms of how he wanted to approach the rest of his career.  He wanted to remain in purple and gold, and put full trust in management to do all they could to provide a team capable of producing more banners.

At Jerry Buss’ memorial service, Bryant discussed how much this learning experience helped him understand what he was truly playing for:

Since that turning point in his career, Bryant and the Lakers achieved success from 2008 to 2010, after a roster re-alignment surged the team into the NBA Finals for three straight years.  Power forward Pau Gasol was brought to Los Angeles from the Memphis Grizzlies, giving Bryant the most versatile big man he has ever played next to.  Youngster Andrew Bynum soon developed into an underrated asset in the paint, and under the phenom known as Phil Jackson, he was able to emerge as a top five center in the game.  Combine those talent upgrades with the veteran leadership from Derek Fisher, the best sixth man you can ask for in Lamar Odom, and a disciplined bench, and you got a championship group that was on top of the basketball world.

Bryant had survived the brutal storm, and made his way back to the NBA Finals in 2008 (vs. Boston), 2009 (vs. Orlando) and 2010 (vs. Boston). He captured his fourth and fifth NBA championships, surpassing his former teammate Shaquille O’Neal with only four rings.

The celebrations didn’t last forever, however, as the forecast included a thunderstorm that the Lakers didn’t expect.  On their journey for another 3-peat (potentially Bryant’s second), the 2011 Dallas Mavericks shut down any ounce of hope Los Angeles had in making it a fourth straight Finals appearance.  Dirk Nowitzki swept the Lakers, marking the end of Phil Jackson’s historic coaching career.  Throughout that season, Bryant began experiencing horrible knee pains, as he later stated that there was no way he would be able to play another full season with the nagging pain he endured throughout the 2011 playoffs.  He then flew to Germany to receive knee treatments, as it began the next chapter in his story.

The next season was a bit odd for Bryant.  Before the 2011-12 lock-out season even began, the Lakers were robbed from obtaining point guard Chris Paul, which seemed to be the young piece Los Angeles needed to re-motivate themselves back into title contention.  This would have meant the departure of Pau Gasol, a player Bryant became very fond of and thankful for during the 2009 & 2010 runs.  This was the moment that sparked the repeated trade rumors around Gasol for the next two seasons.   It would be an understatement to say it was a tough situation for Bryant to watch, and even talk about to the media.     General Manager Mitch Kupchak then traded away his longtime friend and teammate, Derek Fisher, which didn’t set well with Bryant.   The team he just succeeded with, was falling apart.  Nevertheless, Bryant fought through the adversity once again and had a terrific season, even securing a 3-seed in the Western Conference.  Call it another thunderstorm, as the trio of Bryant-Gasol-Bynum were unable to compete with the Oklahoma City Thunder, losing in their 2nd round matchup.

Sunshine Appears — Or Does It?

The 2012-13 season looked to be the most anticipated in Lakers’ history, and that says a lot right off the bat.  Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined the glamorous franchise in surprising fashion, and the notion that Los Angeles would win 73 games and march back to the Finals actually became realistic. 

Yes, nearly half the country had their giggles when things went south.

The Lakers underwent several injuries that prevented this from happening, and ultimately had one of the more disappointing seasons of All-time, winning just 45 games and barely squeezing into the playoffs.

And that wasn’t even the worst outcome from the mind-blowing year.

Bryant went down on April 12, 2013, with a torn Achilles tendon, an injury that looked to be the final earthquake to a 17-year career.

The Return

However, we didn’t actually believe any type of storm could keep Kobe Bryant hiding under shelter, did we?

With eight months of rehab, a new 2-year contract extension worth $48.5 million, and new teammates, Bryant is giving it one last go-around.  Or should I say two?

On Sunday, Dec. 8th, Bryant returns in front of the warm Staples Center crowd to take on a team he has torched throughout his entire career.  Bryant’s 28.3 points per game against Toronto is his second highest scoring average against any opponent.

With Bryant likely going to face some minute limitations on Sunday, as well as limits on if he can even play on back-to-backs, we really shouldn’t expect the Hall-of-Fame type numbers just yet.

That’s where we are today, and that’s what Bryant is excited for the most; weathering another storm.

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