We are reminded of our mortality when a dominant, double-decade athlete begins to break down. If he is vulnerable, then so is life, and so is the absurd-to-begin-with notion that he can reign forevermore. Even the burning inner soul of Kobe Bryant succumbs to the frailties of his body, with his latest injury — a fracture in his left knee — sidelining him for at least six weeks and further darkening the twilight of his blockbuster career.
Gone are the days when Bryant could play through a broken finger, a severely sprained ankle or a weak knee. He tried the other evening in Memphis, still believing he was superhuman, choosing to finish out the game even after he began hobbling on the knee with 3:25 left in the third quarter. For as long as he has been in Los Angeles, It has been impossible for anybody in the Lakers’ organization — ownership, management, training staff, coaches — to advise Bryant about his body. He told them when he’d return from the torn left Achilles tendon that was surgically repaired in April. And, as usual, they went along like lapdogs, ignoring common medical sense that strongly suggested he not rush himself back too early this season, particularly with the Lakers not contending for any titles. They noticed, like the rest of us, that Bryant’s left leg had lost muscle and definition and was smaller than his right leg.
Didn’t matter. Kobe decides when Kobe plays, a comeback accompanied in the Staples Center by Darth Vader music and a trailer circulated on social media, all with his blessing.
Until higher powers tell him to sit back down, that is.
The question now becomes whether Bryant, who was playing at an extremely high level before his Achilles injury, is finished as a reliable elite performer. This downer comes only two weeks after the Lakers announced a two-year, $48.5 million extension for Bryant through the 2015-16 season — a deal denounced by critics as risky and payroll-paralyzing as management tries to rebuild a fallen championship contender. If Bryant could stay healthy and continue his explosive play, the deal would be well worth it to a franchise that must protect its brand and standing in the Hollywood strata and always needs at least one marquee player. Even at 35, you say “Kobe” in L.A., and he continues to be as compelling as any movie star, musician or entertainment figure. But Bryant is of no marketing use when he’s sidelined. When he does return, we’re now going to wonder when the next injury is coming instead of asking if he can win the scoring title.
He seems undaunted, of course. “#BrokenNotBeaten” he Tweeted after the announcement, later telling ESPN, “All I can do is the work. And do everything I can to be back at the highest level.” Typically, the Lakers are following his line of thinking.
“It could happen at any time,” said coach Mike D’Antoni, trying to rationalize the rush job. “That’s part of it. There’s always going to be a risk until he gets used to playing, but the doctors are all over it. That’s just bad luck.
“You hate it for Kobe. He has worked so hard to get back, but he’ll be back. We’ve just got to weather the storm until he gets back. … I think he’ll be back in six weeks, and he’ll be hunting for some bear.”
That’s going to be difficult when the bear now is hunting him. In a daunting Western Conference, the Lakers weren’t going to make the playoffs with Bryant. Now, they’re clearly a lottery team that finally could have a high No. 1 pick with perfect timing, just as a ballyhooed draft class reaches fruition. The Lakers should trade Pau Gasol for whatever his aging, pouty presence can bring, and they should shut down Bryant the rest of the season so he can prepare for two $24-million seasons. Call it tanking if you wish, but that isn’t a fair accusation when circumstances are precipitated by Bryant’s injury.
It’s more a case of a strategic shutdown, and if the Lakers are in position to land one of the draft prizes — Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle — maybe a certain Miami megastar who is tiring of arguing with Mario Chalmers will bring his talents to Hollywood. I’ve been saying all season that LeBron James might have won his final NBA championship in Miami, and it’s obvious the Indiana Pacers have the talent, size and chemistry to dethrone the Heat. Why wouldn’t James, with his increasing interests in the entertainment industry, want to set up his next shop in L.A., where he can team with Bryant for two historic seasons, then name his next sidekick when the likes of Kevin Durant are available in free agency in 2016?
If you haven’t noticed, the NBA has been battered by injuries to major names. You have a problem when three of the league’s top seven leaders in jersey sales — Bryant, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade — have been fighting serious injuries for a while. With small-market teams such as Indiana and Portland ruling the roost, there’s a sense the current season is a mere appetizer for the fireworks next summer in the draft and a free-agency period unprecedented in starpower.
Meantime, Kobe Bryant must stop lying to himself and face a new reality. Nearing the end of his basketball days, he needs to reduce his minutes and acknowledge he isn’t Superman. “I just hyperextended it,” he said after the Memphis game, hours before receiving the harsh news. “I tend to hyperextend my knees every now and then.”
What he’s doing is hyperextending the truth.
It’s called denial.