How We’ll Know When Kobe Bryant Is Officially Back

It is still the first week of the Los Angeles Lakers' regular season, and Kobe Bryant is coming off serious injuries in back-to-back campaigns. How will we know when he has really returned to the game—not just in body, but in all the telltale ways we've come to know and expect over the years?

Do we require the high-flying windmill slams of his youth? Do we need buzzer-beating three-pointers? How about another 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors?

Or has this simply become a shallow construct of how we judge an aging athlete when those around him have fallen away and a team that was once built to win no longer exists?

The Lakers' season opener against the Houston Rockets Tuesday night was a dark and dismal affair—a lopsided loss capped off by 19-year-old rookie Julius Randle going down with a season-ending broken leg.

Yet in the midst of a lousy night, there was Bryant at age 36 as the team's leading scorer—getting tangled up with Dwight Howard and serving notice that he never backs down. There was No. 24, pointing his finger and taunting the much larger, elbow-waving Houston center.

The onetime Laker who fled to the Rockets during free agency in 2013 couldn't handle the Mamba's anger and demanding ways as a teammate, and he probably wouldn't jump into that fight without referees or teammates getting in the middle.

After the game, Bryant laughed off the mini-skirmish, labeling his former teammate "a teddy bear."

And then came Wednesday night—a back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns and another losing effort from an undermanned team. Yet Bryant poured in 31 points in 28 minutes, got his second technical in as many nights, played smashmouth basketball and at times appeared to be the one guy in purple and gold who really cared.

What does "officially back" mean? Should it come accompanied by a winning record? Does it...

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