The last week has been the scariest week I've had as a Lakers fan since 2004. Not because I'm afraid of the Lakers form entering the playoffs, or afraid that they may not win a championship. I tend not to sweat those issues too badly. My fears are reserved for much bigger things, like the possibility of an era coming to an end. That fear hasn't been felt since the summer of 2004, when it became clear that either Shaq, or Kobe, or both, would no longer be Lakers and that dynasty was over. This time around, there is no serious rift amongst stars (despite what overblown media reports might tell you). This time, my fear is centered solely on Kobe Bryant.
The question of when Kobe Bryant would begin to show serious signs of age has been batted around for a couple years now. One side says "Kobe Bryant's only 31 years old, he's still got 4-5 good years left." The other responds with "He's been playing long seasons since the age of 18 and your legs only have a certain number of games in them". One side says "Kobe's the best conditioned athlete in the world, and he's dedicated his life to getting the most out of his body possible." The other side says "All the conditioning in the world can't fight Father Time." Back and forth, so on and so on. It's not helping the conversation that the one side tends to be predominantly Laker fans, and the other predominantly everyone else. This isn't so much team bias as it is team hope. You either hope Kobe will last for years to come, or you hope he will break down, depending on who you root for.
As I've said before, it's impossible to accurately predict, because we simply lack a precedent to compare Kobe Bryant to. Kobe is the first perimeter player of the "straight out of high school" model. He's preceded by Kevin Garnett, but KG is a big man and there are generally a different set of rules between the two health-wise (and for the record, I know that players before KG went preps to pros, but modern medicine has changed the rules of the game so the priors can be ignored for precedent establishing) You can pick a side, and you might even end up being right, but it's just dumb luck. Nobody knows what's going to happen.
Except now we've been given our first piece of evidence on the matter, and it's not good news for the longevity of Kobe Bryant's career. Last week, Kobe skipped two games because of swelling in his knee. There's just one problem: Swelling isn't an injury, it's a symptom. The team hasn't said anything about what Kobe's injury is, because he doesn't have one. Nothing is causing his knee to swell. Ron Artest didn't knock knees with Kobe. Kobe didn't fall to his knees diving for a loose ball. Tonya Harding didn't ask someone to hit Kobe in the knee. The only thing causing the swelling is the fact that Kobe Bryant is payed to play basketball for a living, and basketball is pretty rough on the knees.
The word that's been unofficially thrown around (I think Kevin Ding tweeted it) is tendonitis. Tendonitis is not an injury, it's an affliction, and it doesn't go away. You can't cure it. If you rest, it gets better, but once you start playing again, it gets worse. And unfortunately for us all, the day to day activities of your average basketball player (to say nothing of one of the best in the world) isn't what you would call rest. Most NBA players have tendonitis to some degree, but the only ones who are debilitated by it are the players who are ready to apply for their NBA AARP card.
Watching Kobe struggle the past couple weeks, and hearing the cryptic comments about why he decided to skip a couple games, I can't help but be reminded of another aging NBA star, Kevin Garnett. I know I said earlier that you can't compare the two, because Kobe's a guard and KG's a big. But that was in using KG to draw up a hypothetical timeline for Kobe's career. We're no longer in the realm of the hypothetical. Obviously, what KG is going through is more serious than what Kobe is going through. The Celtics shut KG down for weeks last season, and eventually for the entire playoffs, while Kobe has only missed a couple games. But there is a certain amount of similarity in that Kobe is appearing to lose effectiveness without reason, just as KG did last season. Considering they are one year separated in being the first two preps-to-pros players of the modern era, and considering how KG appears to be a shell of his former self this season, there's a lot to be concerned about with KB24.
Am I blowing this out of proportion? Quite possibly. There are plenty of reasons to hold out hope that Kobe will return to being the Mamba as soon as next week's first round. There's a strong chance that even if he's physically limited next year and beyond, he will still be crafty enough to still perform at an elite level. His poor performance lately could be just as much about his mangled hands as his temperamental knee, or his inability to cope with both at the same time, when either one wouldn't be too much of a hindrance. This is all possible.
Unfortunately, it's also possible that the past few weeks might be a sign of what's to come. It's possible that Kobe really is breaking down physically, and will be unable to continue being the go-to guy on a championship caliber team for much longer. It's possible that he'll never be the same, that we'll never again be graced with watching one of the best players of all time perform at his best. This, too, is all possible. And the first piece of evidence that we have, however small, is leaning in this direction.