Some random thoughts about Kobe Bryant going down with a ruptured Achilles.
The Lakers had no chance in the playoffs. Everyone, even the people in the league office who have been secretly rigging Lakers games for the past three weeks to ensure they get the eighth seed over those oh-so-boring Jazz — who are from Utah! Can you imagine the 8th seed coming from Utah when a team from exciting LA could make the playoffs (so the argument goes among people who see any free throw differential between two teams as proof of conspiracy, although they remain strangely silent games the Lakers don’t shoot more free throws than their opponents) — knows the Lakers have no chance in the postseason.
I know this. And yet…of course some nights I talked myself into seeing the Lakers pulling off an upset in the first round against San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Steal one on the road, sweep at home, lose Game 5 back on the road and finish in 6. Howard dominates on D, Nash knocks down 3s, Gasol continues to play like it’s 2010 — and he has been playing like that for the past few weeks — and Kobe is Kobe, alternately maddening and thrilling, perhaps winning one of the games by himself, probably Game 4 in LA to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead.
Through Friday’s game the Lakers had actually been 26-12 in their last 38 games, or nearly half the season. Of course that record was a bit deceiving — even with some nice victories, they rarely dominated and even against bad teams needed breaks, calls (yes, they have gotten some calls), or heroics to pull out games in the fourth quarter. A more likely scenario? Lakers losing in five, in a mixture of two blowouts and two games where they somehow stumble down the stretch, all while Mike D’Antoni looks befuddled and Kobe rages. I know that’s probably what would have happened. But either way it would have been fun watching Kobe and this mish-mashed team try to put together one more run. The Lakers might still make it, of course, where they’ll meet the same fate as the post-Magic 1992 Lakers, who went out against Portland, while the LA riots raged. Of course now LA fans can say, “If only Kobe had been there! Would have been an upset!”
Not likely. But with Kobe, there was at least always a chance — and even fans who enjoy seeing the Lakers get drilled would enjoy it much more if old No. 24 had to walk off the court after the final game with his head bowed. Now they’ll just see Dwight Howard’s goofy grin as he shakes hands with his conquerors.
Went through a weird thing late Friday where all I could do was compare Kobe’s injury and fate to characters from epic historical movies. I briefly wondered if Jodie Meeks — the shooter brought in by the Lakers to stretch defenses who has been incapable of making a shot lately — would rally the team a ala Robert the Bruce in Braveheart.
William Wallace (Kobe) is dead. Meeks rides in on a horse as the other Laker soldiers stand behind him, waiting to surrender and to hear peace terms offered up by the Oklahoma City Thunder (“We’ll sweep you in four, but we won’t play Durant or Westbrook in any of the fourth quarters so you’ll be spared the humiliation of watching Westbrook possibly injure Steve Blake with a dunk that hits him in the head.”). Clutching Kobe’s compression shorts — or, no, the socks Kobe wore when he tore his Achilles — Meeks screams at the Lakers, exhorting them to fight on. “You fought with Kobe, now fight with me!” As the Lakers championship DVD concludes, we hear a voiceover, narrated by Kobe, talking about the armies of the south rising up to defeat the armies of South Beach in the year of our lord 2013.
Later, switched it to Gladiator, surely a movie Kobe’s watched in a dark room hundreds of times, closed-captioning on because he likes to recite the dialogue outloud, possibly while holding a sword. I saw Kobe on the court and Jeanie Buss walking out in a flowing robe, kneeling down and telling him to let go. She then turns to D’Antoni, Mitch, Howard, Gasol, Nash and says, “Are the playoffs worth one good man’s life? He was a soldier of LA. Honor him.” The players and staff solemnly lift Kobe and carry him off the court while confetti falls and Jack Nicholson wipes away a tear.
Friday was a long night.
All sports fans dabble in sports medicine. We can diagnose injuries without X-rays or MRIs and we can do it by simply staring at a screen. If a player goes down clutching his knee and the replay shows he didn’t get hit but the knee still moved or buckled, we know it’s an ACL and the player won’t return for 6-9 months. When a pitcher walks off holding his elbow, we mentally place a call to Dr. James Andrews to let him know Tommy John surgery needs to be scheduled. An Achilles injury is one of the worst injuries couch M.D.’s can diagnose, but often one of the easiest. A runner rounding third collapses. A quarterback dropping back into the pocket crumbles. An all-time great NBA shooting guard stumbles. They all stay on the ground, looking dumbfounded, holding their heel — or at least what’s left of it.
Kobe actually fooled the fake medial comunity in the third quarter, or at least one of the offices in northern Manhattan, when he fell to the floor gripping his knee after landing awkwardly. ACL, I figured, and in retrospect that would have been better, right? Fewer unknowns, quicker recovery. Instead he was fine, because Kobe was always fine. Until he wasn’t.
In the moments after the diagnsois came in — from the people who actually went to school and hang degrees in their office — I of course ranted about D’Antoni’s insistence on playing Kobe every minute of every game the past few weeks and 38 minutes per game during the season. I’m past that. An Achilles can go anytime and it’s the 50,000 minutes that came before it that had as much to do with it as the 48 he’d played in April every night. Regardless, it was still a ridiculous strategy purely from a basketball perspective because it was going to leave him exhausted by the playoffs. Also, twice he got hurt Friday and he remained in the game, before the final rupture. He’s played 38 minutes a night this year, same as last year under Mike Brown. In Phil Jackson’s final year he played 33. We’ve read stories about how Kobe decided how much he wanted to play and told D’Antoni and Mitch Kupchak. And what can a coach do? Well, Phil showed you can sit him — for six minutes in the second quarter, six more in the fourth, and stealing a few more here and there. Of course, there are 11 reasons Kobe probably tunes in when Phil’s talking compared to the Mikes.
But, as longtime LA Times writer Mark Heisler pointed out, if Kobe hadn’t played those minutes the Lakers are out of the race long ago and what would be the reaction then?
Also, for those talking about the Popovich way, the Spurs have had numerous late-season injuries the past few seasons that have tormented them and do again this year. Has it really worked? As for keeping the players fresh, the Spurs have become the Patriots of the NBA, former champs who now have dominant regular seasons followed by first-round flameouts, second-round sweeps and WCF collapses. Playing Kobe fewer minutes might have saved his Achilles but likely would have cost them any shot at the playoffs so the game against Golden State would have been meaningless and maybe Kobe doesn’t even play because he’s resting minor injuries.
It sure will be exciting when Kobe does come back — assuming D’Antoni does too — when he plays 46 minutes in the first game..
Names of other players who suffered same injury, which ended the careers of some of them: Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Shaquille O’Neal, Chauncey Billups, Elton Brand, Dominique Wilkins. Hard to draw any conclusions from that list. Shaq and Barkley were arleady well past their dominant years and had no motivation to try and return — not to mention neither player was ever known for the greatest conditioning. Isiah was going to retire anyway. Dominique played well in his return but certainly wasn’ the same player who got robbed by Michael Jordan in the ’88 dunk contest.
Kobe actually looked much younger this year than the past two or three seasons — insert German knees joke, preferably while employing raised eyebrows — but certainly didn’t have the explosion of his younger days. To a large extent he’d already adjusted his game to make up for the slight loss of athleticism. Seems like he’ll have to do it again and who knows what form that takes — more play in the post, tougher time getting to the basket. A bigger key could be how he handles it mentally — will he have the same confidence in his body or will there be doubt with every step?
I am going to guess Kobe’s the first player to tear an Achilles, walk off the court, return to hit two game-tying free throws in the final minutes of what turned out to be a two-point victory for his team.
When Kobe played his first game in 1996 I was a senior at St. John’s. How long ago did Kobe debut? When he started in the NBA, Tim Duncan — who is actually even older than Gregg Popovich — was still a geek in college, helping fellow Wake Forest students with their homework while dominating the ACC. Vince Carter, who became a rival, peer and for several years has been a past-his-prime role player, didn’t even enter the NBA for two more seasons. He went from playing against Michael Jordan for two years to welcoming LeBron James into the league to battling even younger guys like Durant and Westbrook. At some time, Kobe’s probably watched tape of high school phenom Andrew Wiggins, anticipating the time he’d be alone with him out on the perimeter.
Kobe has given different signals about retirement, sometimes saying he would after his contract is up in 2014, other times saying he could play five more years if he wants to. I’m fine with him playing forever, until he’s a shell of himself. I’ve never understood the desire so many have to see athletes retire at the top of their game. In what other profession do we demand the greatest quit at their peak simply so it will preserve our memories of them at their best? We don’t ask this of writers, directors, or actors. “If only Pacino had quit after Godfather II!” If he wants to go out scoring 10 a game, great. If he wants to stick around like Kareem, in an attempt to break Kareem’s record, fine.
I don’t see the Lakers amnestying Kobe, and Kupchak said they wouldn’t (although would he say they were doing it?).
When he returns, I fully expect Kobe to again be taking the most shots on the team while people cry for him to feed it into the post. He’ll surprise with occasional dunks over 7-footers and he’ll get on a hot streak that produces 23 points in a fourth quarter, just like it did against New Orleans last week. I can’t imagine him not being Kobe when he returns.
But I also never imagined a time when Kobe Bryant would fall to the ground, walk off the floor — and not return.