WASHINGTON -- Thomas Bryant had to time it perfectly so his teammates would be surprised. He pulled into the garage at Capital One Arena, took a left into the players' lot and arrived in a parking spot at 6:55 p.m.
The Wizards were in the middle of their pregame warmups, set to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 27, 2021. Unbeknownst to them, Bryant was making his way through the hallways of the arena, ready to join his teammates on the bench for the first time since he had surgery to repair a partially torn ACL in his left knee.
Once the Wizards finished their pregame rituals and the starting lineups were announced, they returned to the bench for tip-off. That's when Bryant emerged, striding through the tunnel and out towards the court.
"I waited. I came in right at the last minute," Bryant told NBC Sports Washington "Next thing they knew, I just popped out like 'hey, I'm here.'"
Bryant remembers Anthony Gill being the first player who saw him. Soon after, everyone else figured it out. Bryant was ready to support them in person after mostly being away from the team for nearly two months as he began the long road to recovery while isolated due to COVID-19 protocols.
"We were all shocked," Gill said. "I just went up to him and gave him a big hug. You miss him when he's not around."
While the players and coaches had a game to quickly turn their attention to, the initial reaction and the experience of that night has stuck with Bryant. Though he still had roughly 11 months of recovery ahead of him, it was a pleasant departure from the monotony of rehab, which in the early stages was defined by minor milestones and rest.
"What stood out was just the acceptance my teammates had for me when they saw me," Bryant added. "It was funny because I was hoping they would be surprised and they were way more surprised than I thought they would be. They didn't know."
That night was one of the highlights for Bryant in his 368-day recovery, which came to a close with his return to the floor on Jan. 12 of this season. He said being there around his teammates helped bring back the joy of basketball amid what was a difficult time.
Bryant, 24, is known for his energy and emotion. Basketball is the place that he channels all of it, both on the court with his play and on the bench while rooting on his teammates.
Bryant will demonstrably celebrate anything from a big dunk to a change in possession. So, you can imagine what it was like to be forced to sit around, unable to play the game or even be around it during the initial steps of his rehab.
"It's hard for me to not go crazy not playing basketball," Bryant said.
In addition to the reunion on the bench, Bryant said there were other events in his recovery which helped maintain his sanity.
One of them involved anime.
"I remember the first part, Robin Lopez sent me a couple new comics from a new series of manga books that I just got completely, completely into. I started a new series. I was just binge watching episodes and reading the books and doing some drawing to take my mind off of stuff," Bryant said.
Bryant is an avid drawer of anime characters, as he explained to NBC Sports Washington back in January of 2020.
During his recovery, Bryant also appeared on the Netflix reality show 'Selling Sunset.' He put his L.A.-area house up for sale and a producer reached out to his agent.
In the episode, Bryant shows off his Woodland Hills mansion, which sold for $3.7 million. He was all smiles while interacting with the real estate agent and host.
Bryant looked happy and says being on the show helped lift his mood.
"I thank God every day for it because it was just something different and out of the ordinary, while I was going through such a tough time. To be able to do something like that while I was going through a tough time, then just having the experience of doing that, it was great. It was absolutely great," Bryant said.
All throughout his year-long wait, Bryant watched every game the Wizards played very closely. He studied film and personnel as if he was returning the next night. He wanted to stay sharp mentally while doing whatever he could to ultimately be a better player once he could play again.
From a physical standpoint, Bryant feels like his lower body is more stable than it was before due to all the leg and core strength he added during his recovery. He says he can run faster and jump higher than before the injury.
Three-point shooting was also a major emphasis. It was already one of his biggest selling points and he used the time away from live game action to practice his jumpshot.
Perhaps over time Bryant can demonstrate those improvements, the more he gets comfortable finding his rhythm and game conditioning. But just being back is a hurdle he waited a long time to clear. Bryant is back in his element and his teammates are happy to have him.