In any fight, it's the guy who's willing to die, who's gonna win that inch.
Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday
We've all heard the phrase before. Some of us may even have used it. "I'm going to run this marathon, or die trying." "I'm going to finish this project, or die trying." It is a statement of will, a statement of commitment. It is a statement that eliminates quitting as an option. A statement that you will do what it takes to get the job done, no matter what that is, and if the job does not get done, it will be because it was not possible to do. For the last few weeks, Kobe Bryant has been making that statement with his play, with his commitment, and with his unwillingness to leave the court for even a second. Kobe Bryant was going to get the Los Angeles Lakers into the playoffs, or die trying.
He died trying.
Nobody ever talks about that part. About how having complete and undeterrable commitment to a cause doesn't always work. About how ignoring logic and reason saying that what you are trying to do can't be done, or paying no mind to your body screaming that enough is enough, sometimes has consequences beyond failure to achieve your goal. The concept is noble, and it often makes the difference between success and failure. But it makes that difference because it is unreasonable, because you are willing to risk more than the other guy, more than is worth what you are trying to achieve. In any fight, it's the guy who's willing to die, who's gonna win that inch ... unless the guy, who's willing to die, dies.
I knew it was coming. I didn't know what IT was, or just how bad it would be, but watching Kobe drop shot after shot, make play after play while he limped his way around the court yesterday, I was overwhelmed with equal parts amazement and dread. When he hyper-extended his knee, I cursed the basketball gods. When he twisted his ankle, I cried out for mercy. I wanted Kobe to leave the game, wanted Mike D'Antoni to sack up and say "Enough is enough." It was as clear as day that Kobe's body was breaking down under the strain, and it was only a matter of time before he asked too much of himself. And then it happened.
Obviously, Kobe Bryant still lives and breathes. He is not actually dead. But, as sports metaphors go, he suffered the closest thing to a basketball death as can be. If, as expected, Kobe has suffered a complete tear of the Achilles tendon, that is among the most severe injuries that one can suffer without delving into freak accidents and unfortunate genetics. The recovery timetable will most likely be between nine months and one year, and that benchmark has been established by younger men, many of whom don't come back quite the same. The only precedent at Kobe's age is just across town, where 35 year old Chauncey Billups has attempted to return from a ruptured Achilles he suffered in February of 2012. More than a year later, Billups has returned to the court, but nowhere near his previous level of play. A ruptured Achilles is an injury that has ended the careers of younger men, chief among them Isiah Thomas. Nobody can know what the future holds for Kobe, but the guy was already talking about not wanting to play if he couldn't do so at an elite level when all that he was fighting against was time. Still, you would be foolish to bet against Kobe Bryant, because he has found another inch to die for.
At least this inch will be worth it.
As Kobe waddled off the court like some sort of penguin-man hybrid, there was a potent cocktail of emotions brewing in my head. Sadness, for Kobe's loss and, much less so, because of how this hurts the Lakers' chances this season. Pride, at seeing Kobe continue to fight to the bitter end, sinking two free throws on one leg, two points which exactly made up the winning margin for his team on the night. Fear, that I was witnessing something much worse than the end of a season that has disappointed from the start. But the primary emotion was anger. Anger at Coach D'Antoni for allowing Kobe to reach this point. Anger at Kobe for failing to listen to his own body's cries. And above all, anger that Kobe was willing to sacrifice himself, was willing to drive his body so far into the red zone that a simple push off detonated his heel, for this.
This Lakers season has been an abomination. What started off which such promise of magic quickly turned into something unrecognizable and horrifying. Injuries robbed the team of an early chance to work out the kinks. The team's attitude after five games was bad enough to get Mike Brown the axe, and while I agreed with the move at the time, it quickly became clear when he was replaced that the team's attitude problems went far beyond an over-matched coach. Mike D'Antoni was hired in such an idiotic manner that he had his legs cut out from under him before he even coached a game. Even if D'Antoni was the perfect man for the job (an illusion I certainly don't hold on to anymore), the flirtation with Phil Jackson before his hire ensured the worst possible environment for him to inherit. He had no fan support. He probably had little team support. And the team made no improvement whatsoever.
The injuries continued to pile up, right along with the terrible losses. A loss in Sacramento was a warning shot, but the loss in Los Angeles to the Orlando Magic was a full broadside indication of how many things were wrong with this squad. Even when they tried hard, they failed to convince anybody of their merits as a contender of any kind ... and they rarely tried hard. In Cleveland, at home to Philadelphia, in Toronto; time after time, the Lakers played teams they should beat with little effort, all while getting beat down by teams better than them. A couple more wins from this arrangement of crap, and maybe the Lakers aren't quite so desperate just to even get in to the playoffs. If you think Kobe Bryant's injury is tied to Kobe Bryant's attempt to will the Lakers into the playoffs, like I do, then Kobe didn't just get hurt last night. He got hurt in every single one of those stupid, stupid losses.
Nothing the Lakers did this season worked. They compiled an All-Star roster of starting talent, only to see every single one of their starters pick up a major injury over the course of the season. They changed coaches and kept right on sucking. Dwight Howard was brought in to inherit the franchise, and I'm still not 100% sure I even want the Lakers to re-sign him. Steve Nash was brought here for pennies on the dollar and, through no fault of his own, may not have been worth the pennies. And just when you thought the season couldn't get any worse, Dr. Buss was taken from us, too. The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the best, most successful, most storied, and most blessed franchises in the history of the NBA. For sixty plus years, they have reigned over the NBA with the kind of luck and good fortune that would be rightfully described as the mandate of heaven. It shouldn't be possible to reverse all that good karma, to even out all the good with equivalent bad luck and misfortune in one season. And yet, if that hasn't been achieved, it has not been for lack of trying. This season was 60 years of accumulated bad luck being paid back in six months.
This is what Kobe sacrificed himself for. Not for a chance at a sixth ring. Not to lead his team into the NBA Finals. Not to get through a small rough patch. He sacrificed himself to get a mediocre team with little chemistry and no identity into a first round playoff date that would likely have ended quickly in failure. Kobe Bryant was willing to do what it takes, to sacrifice everything for his cause, and that's exactly what he did. He made himself the martyr of Lakerdom. Maybe he did it because he thought the Lakers could pull it together for a magical run. Maybe he did it because of his own responsibility in allowing the team to develop so many of the issues that plagued them all season long. Maybe he was killing himself to get the team into the playoffs as a mea culpa for his failure to lead them into a better position early on. Maybe he did it because he couldn't imagine the possible consequences. I don't know, I'm not him.
What I do know is that no basketball cause is worth what happened to Kobe Bryant, and this cause wasn't worth much at all.