When Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles last April, I was initially concerned that game against the Warriors could very well be his last. This is a brutal injury for any athlete, much less a 35-year old with the equivalent of about 20 seasons under his belt when you consider playoff mileage. The effects are typically devastating, the rehab is grueling, and few NBA players have been remotely the same afterward. Kobe’s also stated on countless occasions a deep disinterest in performing below his lofty standards. The league is filled with grizzled ballers hanging around in their late 30s because they’re either willing to accept a supporting role on a contending team or simply aren’t ready to abandon the NBA lifestyle. Bryant will never be among them. Once it’s clear he can’t play at a high level, he won’t play at all.
With all these factors potentially stacked against him, the notion of Bryant forced into retirement certainly crossed my mind, and it wasn’t a pleasant thought.
However, there’s also a part of me that would have been okay with this, because Kobe’s last act as a professional basketball player would have been draining two free throws while supported by an Achilles with all the stability of a wet noodle, which to me stands as the greatest accomplishment of his entire career.
Greater than the five titles. Greater than 81 points. Greater than anything else on his first ballot Hall of Fame resume.
Physically and especially mentally, that Kobe managed to summon the strength to sink those free throws is nothing short of amazing. The pain alone would be (quite understandably) enough reason to tap out. Instead, Kobe walked to the line under his own power. And mentally, the task was even more daunting. Kobe knew immediately what just happened, which means his mind must have ventured into a pretty dark place as he stared down an injury capable of forever changing him. With the Lakers’ postseason hopes in the balance, Kobe had already played through a few nasty collisions against Golden State. He was now tasked with sinking a pair of free throws to keep those playoffs hopes alive, all the while knowing there was no prayer of actually participating.
The focus required to simply hold back tears was Herculean. That Kobe actually succeeded under those circumstances was astonishing. I’ve never seen anything like that moment in all my years watching sports, and I’m not sure any other athlete could have met this challenge.
For all of Kobe’s otherworldly skills, what often makes him so remarkable is his toughness. Physical toughness and mental toughness, both put to an unforgettable test. That he aced it says everything about who Kobe is as an athlete and competitor, and why he’s remained so compelling, even at his most frustrating. For that matter, as I’ve written about on several occasions, the most unappreciated aspect of Kobe’s career has been its unpredictability, the wholly unique path from 17 year-old rookie handpicked by Jerry West to iconic veteran. It’s been consistently impossible to predict the direction of Kobe’s career, and the latest chapter, however dispiriting, carries forth that legacy.
Thus, as tragic as such an abrupt ending would have seemed, it would have nonetheless contained fitting poetry, which is hardly insignificant.
That’s not to say I wanted Kobe’s career to end last April. Far from it. But as someone who’s admired a career witnessed in a front row seat from its inception onward, reconciliation could have been discovered through appropriateness.
Certainly more so than the situation for Steve Nash, another Laker working to get back on the court in the twilight of his career. That quest has grown increasingly futile, and any hope of the two-time MVP returning to form appears a pipe dream. Seeing Nash’s wholly depressing battle with a body that’s betrayed him, I can’t help but think about Kobe as his return date inches closer.
To be clear, I’m not expecting Kobe to emerge like Nash, an extreme, unnerving shell of himself. By all accounts, his rehab has moved steadily forward without hiccups or setbacks, and I can’t imagine Bryant would even put this current stage in public view unless he felt completely confident in his prospects. And during glimpses witnessed in practice, he looked fluid and strong.
But practice ain’t an NBA game, and more importantly, the standards Kobe has set for himself aren’t up for negotiation. Even having acknowledged physical limitations moving forward (a reality on the horizon even before the injury), he fully expects this to be offset by fundamentals, adjustments, intelligence and all the tricks in his very deep bag. The result, according to Kobe, will be a player who remains elite by his definition.
Not yours. Not mine. His.
In other words, “good enough” is anything but.
To be honest, I don’t really care about how Kobe’s presence affects the rest of the season, because this team’s not going anywhere with or without him. And while I certainly care about whether Kobe can add another title to his collection (if for no other reasons than selfish ones as a Laker fan), he’s already forged a resume more successful than even the wildest of imaginations, including his own, could concoct. Bryant may remain greedy, and to quote Gordon Gecko, greed is good. But should he hang up the sneaks with enough rings to cover merely one hand, I imagine he’ll learn to live with it.
A season (or more) spent, in his eyes, underachieving? Much more difficult to reconcile.
In the end, what I really want for Kobe upon his return is the ability to remain prideful in his performance. To remain able to play on his own terms, rather than those dictated by circumstances. However the chips fall from there, the eventual end, whenever it comes, will be fitting of his career. And that’s something Kobe has earned.