Kobe Bryant is back in practice with the Los Angeles Lakers, and even the five-time NBA champion gets a charge out of getting back to work.
Bryant participated in his second full workout with the Lakers at their training complex on Tuesday. He still isn't sure when he'll be back in uniform, but he's grateful to take the next step in his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon.
"It's always a much greater appreciation for it," Bryant said, his forehead beaded with post-practice sweat. "You understand the mortality that comes with being on that doorstep. There's always a sense of enjoyment when you come back. ... Put the jersey on, you walk out in practice, and felt like it was '97 again and I was getting my first start as a pro."
Bryant isn't setting a return date, but acknowledged he could see himself returning to the Lakers later this month. Coach Mike D'Antoni said Bryant will return whenever he says he's ready, although the Lakers' next game against Golden State on Friday is very unlikely.
The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history hasn't played since tearing his Achilles tendon in a game against Golden State in April. He did several weeks of conditioning work before returning to practice last Saturday for a brief workout.
Bryant did drills and 5-on-5 play with the Lakers on Tuesday. He says he's "pleasantly surprised" by how good he felt afterward.
"I just went out there and just played," Bryant said. "Just tried to do what I normally do and figure some things out about my game, what can I do and what can't I do at this stage. Just try to figure out the route."
Bryant says he could adjust his game and contribute something to the Lakers right now, but he wants to make sure he's ready to play for the long haul when he returns for his 18th NBA season.
"It's definitely something where you're kind of champing at the bit a little bit, but we've come so far," he said. "I want to make sure, we all do, when you step out there you're ready to go the long haul, and it's not something that continues on. ... You just have to get stronger, but I could adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now."
Bryant's self-evaluation isn't about praising his strengths, such as his better-than-expected upper-body strength, but finding his weaknesses. He's also withholding judgment until he figures out how his body responds Wednesday morning.
"You've got to be honest with yourself, and if you have those limitations, then you've got to figure out a way to be effective around those," Bryant said. "You can't be stubborn about that. If there are certain things that I used to do that I can't do now. I won't try to do them. I've got to figure out another way."
Bryant's teammates were uniformly impressed with his condition and mobility in his first workouts back from a serious injury. D'Antoni allows Bryant and trainer Gary Vitti to plot the superstar's comeback pace, and the coach didn't encourage his players to go easy on Bryant.
"They had better beat him up while they can, because when he gets better, they won't be able to," D'Antoni said. "I'm sure they'll take their shots early. ... He's going to be a little rusty. He's going to make mistakes. But if he feels good, and when he feels like, 'You know what? I can do this,' then that's what he should do, and he's the only one that can [say] that."
During his recovery, Bryant has spent plenty of time with Steve Nash, the 39-year-old point guard currently sidelined with the latest in a series of injuries. Nash is out for at least another week with nerve root irritation, a back problem stemming from a broken leg last season.
Bryant and Nash intend to be back in the Lakers' lineup together soon. Los Angeles is off to a 5-7 start in Bryant's absence and with little help from Nash.
But Bryant is impressed by his younger teammates, particularly Jordan Hill. The energetic big man has been outstanding since joining the starting lineup four games ago, capped by his career highs of 24 points and 17 rebounds in a win over Detroit last Sunday.
"We've got a bunch of competitors," Bryant said. "We've got a bunch of guys that can step up and compete. That's the most important thing. We've got guys that are willing to do whatever it takes to win. I've been extremely proud of the way we've competed."