Can Kobe Bryant be invincible again?

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Dwight Howard had his own reasons for wanting to pay Kobe Bryant a visit in April, after the Los Angeles Lakers guard had ruptured his Achilles tendon. Whatever issues had come between the two stars, and whatever issues lie ahead, Howard knew firsthand how isolating and depressing it was to be stuck at home and confined to a bed after suffering a career-threatening injury.

A year earlier, he'd been in the same dark place. Holed up in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, Calif., after back surgery, waiting for a visitor, or even a text message, from someone -- anyone! -- to take his mind off the long road ahead. Occasionally a friend or family member came by. But none of his teammates ever did, and it hurt Howard deeply.

So the week after Bryant ruptured his Achilles, Howard and reserve guard Jodie Meeks paid Bryant a visit at his home in Newport Beach.

"He was just sitting on the couch, relaxing with his family," Meeks said. "I forget what we did. I think we watched a movie or something. It seems like a long time ago, now. But I guess it wasn't."

Meeks didn't have any of the emotional baggage associated with the visit that Howard did. Nor did he realize what a rare thing it was for any of Bryant's teammates to drive all the way to his home in Orange County, an hour south of the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. To Meeks, it was just a nice thing to go do. But while the details and context of it all are a bit fuzzy, one image endures. Bryant sitting on the couch, his leg immobilized, surrounded by his family. Meeks had never seen him this way. Very few have.

Meeks' image of Bryant is the same one most of us have: the snarling, uber-competitive gamer who never met an injury that could keep him out.

Weeks earlier, Bryant had badly sprained his ankle after landing on Atlanta Hawks guard Dahntay Jones' foot and played the next game in Indiana with an injury one Lakers insider estimated would keep any other player out two to three weeks. His logic? Just see what it felt like to play with an ankle that was that badly sprained.

As elite athletes go, he'd been relatively invincible.

"It seems that way," Meeks said. "But it's not."

Sitting on that couch, with his left foot in a cast, and his basketball future in question, Bryant was as vulnerable as anyone had ever seen him.

The sight was jarring.

"We all got a shot of reality with that one," Meeks said. "It's one thing to play hurt, it's another to play with [that] injury."

As Bryant prepares to make his comeback Sunday evening against the Toronto Raptors (9:30 ET on NBA TV), that's the question everyone will be wrestling with.

Can he be invincible again? Should he even try to be?

Has this experience made him stronger and smarter? If so, what will that even look like?

So much of what Bryant has been, particularly in his later years, is a symbol of resistance. Other players might get old, but he refuses to. Other men might try to stave off the effects of gravity and age, but only he has the mental toughness and discipline to be able to.

It's his brand, now. Not just in the NBA, but in the wider world. When he speaks to the homeless children he works with through his charity, he tells them that if they adopt his "Mamba mentality," no obstacle will ever be too high. When he fell to the ground that night in April, his Achilles completely ruptured and his spirit wounded, many wondered whether he could ever be that guy again. He wondered it, too.

"Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing?" Bryant wrote in a gut-wrenching late-night Facebook post the night of the injury. "Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me.

"Then again maybe not!"

It was the first signal that he intended to fight back from this injury with the same fire and passion he's done with every other injury, even though it was unlike any other injury he's ever had.

The next morning he had surgery, and began to heal.

In the eight months since that awful night, Bryant has kept his thoughts more private. He tweets and posts on Facebook only occasionally these days. The work sustains him. The plan focuses him. There's no time for idle conversations. While it may seem like he's disengaged from the wider world -- pulling back on social media and doing only a smattering of interviews this season -- the truth is he's gone quiet because he's acutely aware of what he represents to people, and doesn't want to disappoint anyone.

This comeback is important for him, but also for everyone who has come to see him as a symbol of noble resistance to the laws of nature. It's not just his career he's resurrecting, it's their faith in that symbol.

Perhaps it's a coincidence that Bryant drew inspiration from Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao for the design of his new Nike shoe, which launched this week.

Perhaps it's a window into his thoughts, and on the burdens he is bearing. No athlete in the world carries around more hopes and dreams than Pacquiao, on whose shoulders seem to rest an entire nation.

Bryant's pressures pale in profundity when compared to what Pacquiao walks around with every day. But there is certainly a comparison. It makes people feel better to know Bryant still flouts the idea that all of our runs fade someday. It makes people feel better to know Bryant still ferociously believes that.

It's hard to reconcile that guy with the one sitting on the couch with his foot in a cast in April. It's hard to see him as invincible again, just eight months after he was so vulnerable.

But does he really need to be?

The sheer randomness of the injury taught him he cannot control everything. And at first, that was a sobering thought.

But there's a freedom that comes once you let go of that idea. A tighter grip wears you out after a while. Eventually something snaps.

That's how Bryant ended up on that couch in April. It's also why he got up off it.

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