Kobe Bryant’s Search to Rediscover Self Will Define Success or Failure of Season

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Here he is, having cracked the bone just below his knee as he pulled his shredded foot out of the basketball grave. And all that happened to his good leg.

Expectations are universally low as Kobe Bryant, 36, begins the controversial two-year, $48 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid player in the game.

Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers are being pegged more often as the worst team in the Western Conference than they are being suggested as playoff qualifiers, much less a title threat.

And yet…

With more opportunity than ever for mediocrity to qualify as success, the truth about this being some sort of off-Broadway Kobe show is all a masquerade.

Bryant has set his bar so high that he'd better be great—or he'll be unacceptable.

It's not just the salary; it's all that he has said and done since 1996, and how often he has soared to unexpected heights.

No one asked him to score 81, but he did.

No one assumed he would win without Shaquille O'Neal, but he did.

Favorite or underdog, then or now, there is an expectation that he can amaze.

Especially when he shares how much this opportunity—just the squeak of the sneakers, the smell of the leather—means to him now.

"Can't say I haven't missed the game," he said Monday. "I've missed it so much."

He's tired and worn out and facing an uphill battle, though.

But he's been tired and worn out and faced an uphill battle many times before, on the court late in games, before putting forth a heck of a charge nonetheless, creating something to see, win or lose.

He has proved masterful at reinventing himself in subtle ways—dating all the way back to when he vacillated minute-by-minute between being Shaq's foil and feeder—while remaining the same guy people love or love to ...

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