With a little over three minutes remaining in the Los Angeles Lakers’ must-win clash with the Golden State Warriors in LA yesterday, the previously indestructible Kobe Bryant suffered what was confirmed by MRI as the worst injury of his career: a torn Achilles. While the Lakers would hold on to win by two points, aided by two Kobe free throws after limping to the free throw line following the injury, the fate of the Lakers’ perilously tenuous hold on a playoff spot now takes a distant backseat to questions surrounding the nature of the remainder of Kobe’s glorious NBA career.
Kobe’s injury is not a storyline about me, and it would be self-absorbed to pen an editorial on the man based on my own experience of him, but in a way, it is a story for and about all Laker fans. Over the past 17 years, Kobe’s basketball career became my Truman Show. In my final year of high school, I recall a conversation with a friend who informed me that LA had just worked a draft-day trade for a precocious high school prodigy named Kobe Bryant. In June of 2000, I sat glued to the television as an afro-sporting Kobe returned from a sprained ankle to lead the team to the pivotal Game 4 overtime victory in Indiana in the NBA Finals. Later that year I made my first cross-Pacific pilgrimage to Staples Center to see him pour in 38 points against Dallas. He never disappointed me live, scoring 48 against Toronto in my next visit four years later and performing at a consistently high level in three more appearances at Staples four years after that. I followed live box scores as he scored game-winning baskets, romped to 81 points against Toronto, and kept his career scoring total ticking at an alarming rate. I pored over countless articles chronicling everything from his relentless competitiveness to his feuds with ex-teammate Shaquille O’Neal and his rumblings of discontent with the assembly speed of a championship caliber team in the post-Shaq era. It was and is a career of immense substance, and it was being lived out on my team for my pleasure.
So when I saw the sorry headline this afternoon I was confronted with a range of emotions, many external to the practical issues his injury creates. Tangibly, Kobe’s injury creates dilemmas on many fronts for the Lakers. The team must likely win its final two games (or at least one, depending on whether the 9th-placed Jazz lose one of its final two games) to reach the playoffs without its biggest star. Kobe’s timeline for recovery will dramatically impact upon the team’s personnel plans for next year. If he can be back in the first month or two then it is business as usual, but if it’s a longer stint on the sidelines, the team cheque book may not be as forthcoming to bolster the roster. Then there is the issue of Kobe being owed close to $30 million for the 2013/14 season. A season that is supposed to be his swansong, but if he misses half of it and decides to return for the next campaign, what will his asking price be, and will it mesh with the team’s plans to create a power post-Kobe? All questions too early to answer now, but ones that will need to be addressed in time. One thing is for certain, is that Kobe’s presence on the team makes the Lakers a far more valuable franchise and he’ll be accommodated wherever possible.
But these practical concerns only formed part of my melancholy. Would he be tempted to hang up the sneakers given the arduous nature of his recovery and the fact that with five championships, an MVP, two Finals MVPs, scoring titles, certain entry into the Hall of Fame and the equal certainty of his jersey being retired by the Lakers, his career achievements already sit alongside those belonging to the best to ever play? The thought of him leaving $30 million on the table and finishing his career this way soon allayed that fear, but I wondered if I’d ever see the same Kobe again. I wondered if this was the door slamming shut on his quest for ring number six.
Above all of those concerns however was the clear realization that I hadn’t appreciated what had been before me all along. Throughout the Shaq-Kobe era, my favorite players were role players like Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher, echoing my love of players not necessarily gifted with an abnormal abundance of talent but who were able to extract the most out of themselves. While I always loved Kobe’s on-court demeanor, competitiveness and lack of joviality, at times I bristled when I felt he shot the ball too much, coming to the fore when I threw my old #8 Bryant jersey out the back door during his 6-for-24 shooting performance in the ultimately successful Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. It became clear that the competitive animal who had given every fiber of his being to help the Lakers win at all costs for 17 years hasn’t occupied the his rightful place in my purple and gold heart. I hadn’t appreciated him enough.
Kobe’s injury is not a storyline about me, but in many ways, it is all about me. The man perennially painted as egotistical and selfishly chasing his own personal records and glory has consistently been at the center of the best years of my time supporting LA. Like Truman, he has provided in himself a brilliant and captivating point of attention, joy and inspiration. While people criticized him for the ruthless manner in which he chased success and trampled those who stood in his way, little did they know it was all for me, sitting at my computer following box scores, scribbling the ideal Lakers lineups in the margins of my books during boring university classes, daydreaming of championships and releasing tears of joy when they eventuated. Questions may surround the immediate future of Bryant and the Lakers, but Kobe’s career didn’t end today. Only the way in which I’ve taken his remarkable career for granted.